RHINELANDER, Wisconsin — What better person to train loggers to operate a new machine than a logger with experience operating the machine?
When Ponsse’s North American business unit needed someone to train new customers on running their cut-to-length harvesters and forwarders, they turned to Brad Brown. That was at the end of 2011, so Brad has completed nearly 10 years working for Ponsse. As Ponsse’s operator trainer coordinator, he is in the field training loggers and also oversees other trainers.
Brad, 57, works out of the company’s North American headquarters facilities in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. He grew up in Rhinelander and lives in the same house his parents built, which is only four miles away from Ponsse’s facilities.
Brad has had a long history in the logging business as well as operating Ponsse cut-to-length logging machines. His father, Gaylord, had a logging and trucking business. Gaylord died when Brad was still in high school in 1980, and Brad’s older brother, Dennis, took over the company and operated it with another brother, Scott. Brad began working with his brothers weekends and summers, then joined them full-time after graduating.
By 1985 Brad and Scott decided to leave the family business. Brad went to work for a company that manufactured cutting tools, but there was little opportunity for advancement. He continued to work on weekends for his brother.
Dennis called him one day in 1987. His crew had quit, and Scott was unable to help because he had a bad back. “He was all by himself,” recalled Brad. “I went back to the woods.”
Brad continued working with Dennis for the next 23 years, until Dennis died in 2010.
Brad operated logging machines and other heavy equipment and maintained and repaired the machines. He started out operating cable skidders, then grapple skidders. He moved onto slasher-loaders, then to feller-bunchers. Brad also operated the company’s other heavy equipment — excavator, dozer, and grader — and learned how to build logging roads. “It was a good thing to become a well-rounded operator,” he said.
In the early 1990s the company transitioned to cut-to-length logging and began a long relationship with Ponsse. In fact, Dennis purchased some of the first Ponsse machines that began operating in the U.S. He was only the second logging contractor to opt for Ponsse equipment. Dennis invested in a pair of machines, a harvester and forwarder. Brad usually operated the harvester, and Dennis, the forwarder. Brad also occasionally operated the forwarder on weekends if they needed to catch up.
“We were a mechanized operation for some years before we went to cut-to-length,” said Brad. “Yet, with the Ponsse machines, we felt we had stepped far into the future. The machines were so vastly different.”
With the death of his brother, Brad shut down the company. “After I closed it down, I really didn’t know what I was going to do with myself,” recalled Brad. “I went around, put my resume in a few different places. I thought about going back to machine tooling.” However, now in his 40s, Brad did not receive “a whole lot of interest” from those efforts.
About that time the oil industry began booming in the Dakotas, and Brad hired on as an equipment operator. He worked in the oil fields almost a year before deciding “it didn’t really fit…I had too much sawdust in the blood, I guess.”
Over the years Brad had built a relationship with the Ponsse staff. He was a customer, but he also did equipment demonstrations for Ponsse and also did ‘ride-alongs,’ letting other loggers share the cab with him so they could get a bird’s-eye view of a machine and what it could do. He let the Ponsse personnel know he was interested in employment opportunities with the company back in Wisconsin.
Brad was grading a pad for a new oil rig one day when his cell phone rang. On the line was Pekka Ruuskanen, managing director of Ponsse North America. Brad recalled what Pekka told him. “I need you to come and deliver a machine. Where are you at?” Pekka offered him a position delivering machines and training operators.
How long does it take to train someone to operate a harvester? “Depends on what you start with,” said Brad. “If he’s an equipment operator, usually you can get a guy like that able to run by himself in a matter of days.” For someone with no experience operating heavy equipment, it is more likely to take a few weeks.
“If you can use a simulator, it’s faster,” noted Brad, and it saves on machine maintenance and downtime.
Still, it may take 4-8 weeks before an experienced operator reaches 90 percent effectiveness, and 6-9 months for someone who is brand new to operating heavy equipment.
“Some people have natural talent and catch on quicker,” observed Brad. One logger “completely flunked out,” he said. After a few weeks of training, it was clear the man just was not cut out for operating equipment.
The ‘student’ has to have a certain amount of natural ability as well as certain intangibles, like desire and a good work ethic. “If someone really wants to become an operator, they have to show some initiative,” said Brad. “There’s a certain amount of work and thought you have to be willing to put into it. If someone just thinks of it as another job, he’s not going to progress.”
“When you’re operating in the woods, it’s not just about pulling a lever. There’s an extreme amount of thought that goes into the work. You have to plan…And there’s a lot of finesse involved.”
“The machine is not a bull. If you’re pushing dirt with a bulldozer, you can be brain dead for a little while. These cut-to-length machines take a lot of thought and attention.”
Brad recalled coming across a study that was done of operating cut-to-length machines in the 1990s. The decision-making process for the operator is at the same level of intensity as a fighter pilot in combat, the study found. “A combat fighter pilot only has to do it for five minutes,” said Brad. “A harvester operator does it all day long.”
Having to be that engaged mentally and constantly making a variety of decisions all day long is wearying, noted Brad. “You just want to crawl into your pickup truck…and go home.”
Experienced operators can listen to music while they work, and their brain may wander a bit. “But that all comes with practice and familiarity,” said Brad. “You still run out of ‘brain chemicals’ at the end of the day.”
When a logger buys a Ponsse machine, training on a simulator is included in the purchase agreement. Contractors also can purchase additional simulator training time. Simulator training is done one-on-one.
Ponsse has state-of-the-art simulators with the same kind of controls a trainee would find in a machine. They help simulate the operation of the machine “pretty accurately,” said Brad. “It really helps a lot” with trainees who are new to operating heavy equipment. “It gets them to know when they move a lever what’s going to happen.”
That kind of training helps prevent mistakes and costly accidents and reduces overall training costs. “When you make a mistake in the real world,” noted Brad, “hoses break. Things happen.”
A person who already has experience operating equipment will train on the simulator for about two days. A person with no experience would train on the simulator for about a week.
The Ponsse simulators are semi-portable but normally are used at Ponsse facilities; Ponsse also will take simulators to a contractor’s shop for training. The company has simulators in Rhinelander and in Gaylord and Gladstone, Michigan, and Grand Rapids, Minnesota. It also has one at its facility in Eugene, Oregon and at a dealership in Bangor, Maine. Ponsse has supplied simulators to colleges, too.
There is another trainer in Rhinelander besides Brad, one in Gladstone, Michigan, one in Gaylord, and one in Grand Rapids who does double duty as a field service technician. All the trainers are experienced equipment operators, and all have logging experience.
Ponsse trainers also provide technical support. “All trainers wear more than one hat,” said Brad. They are available to offer support to customers, particularly for questions or issues related to operating a machine. Calls related to mechanical issues normally go to the service department.
“I like working with operators and contractors,” said Brad, “because even though I’m not working as a contractor anymore, I still consider myself a logger. I’ll always be that. I’m helping the people I come from.”
During training, “You get to know people pretty well,” said Brad, “and they get to know you fairly well, too.”
Although a machine with a fixed cab is built for one operator, they are designed to have enough space for a ‘student’ operator and trainer in the cab for training purposes. “There’s more than enough room,” said Brad. Some machines, like the Ponsse Scorpion King harvester, are “a little tight” in the cab for two people, he acknowledged, but there is enough room to accommodate the student and the trainer.
Of course, Brad has received plenty of training himself, and he continues to receive training as Ponsse upgrades its machines. He was initially trained by two other operators from Ponsse’s factory in Finland. He has returned to Finland several times over the years for additional training, and Ponsse also has sent personnel to its North American subsidiary to conduct training. Training covers the entire range of subjects from engines and hydraulics to operational efficiency. With the advent of the Covid pandemic and restrictions on travel, much of the training currently is conducted online.
The Ponsse machines of the 1990s were “state-of-the-art,” recalled Brad, their design and construction emphasizing operator efficiency, safety, and comfort. “They were the best we had seen so far.”