As director of the Mechanized Harvesting Laboratory for the College of Forestry, Kevin Lyons, the Wes Lematta Professor of Forest Engineering, spends a lot of time thinking about the sophisticated machinery involved in mechanized forest harvesting systems. He also spends a lot of time thinking about the people who operate them.

“Forestry is, of course, about the forests,” Lyons says. “But it’s ultimately about the people. Competing demands for forest resources drives the need for management, and this relies on knowledgeable professionals.”

The mission of the Mechanized Harvesting Laboratory (MHL) is to increase the knowledge of modern mechanized harvesting systems. It does this by combining state-of-the-art computer-based forest harvesting machine simulation, mechanical analysis, operations research and field-based research. By increasing knowledge, the MHL hopes to reduce environmental impacts due to harvesting forest products, increase worker safety, reduce the cost of harvesting and increase the value of the products.

In addition to Lyons, the MHL includes faculty members Woodam Chung, professor and Stewart Professor of Forest Operations, Francisca Belart, assistant professor and extension specialist, John Sessions, Distinguished Professor, Strachan Chair of Forest Operations Management and Jeffrey Wimer, senior instructor and Strachan Faculty Scholar of Logging Technology.

“A lot of the work is about dealing with people and behavior,” Lyons says. “It’s about protecting people on the ground but also working with people to train their decision-making and reactions.”

Over the years, great advancements have been made in the development of computer-based forest harvesting machine simulators. The MHL recognized the potential for these systems in research and education, and in 2019 and 2020 partnered with John Deere to add one John Deere frame simulator and ten John Deere desktop simulators to the MHL’s existing Ponsse frame simulator.

The MHL has the capacity for virtual 3D visualization in addition to traditional viewing screens. The simulators include wheeled cut-to-length forest harvesting systems and tracked full-tree systems. The John Deere terrain editor can quickly generate a 3D simulation of the terrain and populate it with a variety of stand conditions, roads, and other features. The desktop simulators are portable and can go on the road for workshops and off-campus research.

The MHL is currently taking advantage of the harvesting machine simulators in two research projects. Lyons’ team is conducting research to determine how to effectively use the simulators to optimize learning and to deliver distance education to forest professionals. In addition, the research group is examining issues related to worker safety and risk assessment.

“It is difficult to conduct research in hazard recognition and worker risk assessment on active logging sites,” Lyons explains. “It is expensive and time consuming to set-up staged events and hazardous to be near active machinery in a forestry setting.”

The harvesting machine simulators combined with the terrain editor provide Lyons the opportunity to simulate many safety incidents quickly to a level that research subjects find sufficient to see the hazards and to assess the risk.

“The combination of being able to build terrains and forests, visualize the machine operating in the forest, and actually run the machine controls provide valuable experiential learning opportunities,” Lyons says.

Lyons compares the experiential and interactive teaching he does in the MHL to coaching soccer.

“People learn by doing,” he says. “Coaching soccer is about creating age and skill-appropriate opportunities for people to experience success and to learn by playing. The same is true for the harvesting machine simulators utilized in the lab.”

While the traditional use of harvest machine simulators is to train machine operators, explains Lyons, the MHL believes the harvesting machine simulators have the potential to reach a much broader audience.

“Foresters and engineers can work with the simulators and terrain builder to better recognize opportunities and to improve their road and cutblock designs,” Lyons says. “Landowners can view harvesting their land with various combinations of machinery and silviculture systems. Researchers can use the simulators to create environments in which to conduct research considering machine design, safety and operations.”

The MHL has developed several undergraduate courses that utilize the harvesting machine simulators, including a course that introduces the harvesting systems and develops scenarios for analysis as well as a course covering worker safety that includes both a focus on people and system design.

“One of the challenges with forest engineering and logging is it’s a complicated and uncontrolled environment,” Lyons says. “You have to make on the ground decisions that affect safety.”

Lyons views his job as one that helps people make better decisions.

“At the heart of it, a person is running the system,” Lyons says.

This story was part of the College of Forestry’s 2019-2020 Biennial Report.

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