Two of the key issues facing the timber industry, decarbonisation and challenging market conditions, coalesce when considering logistics practices and machinery.

Environmental factors have undoubtedly driven the electrification of equipment, spurred on by the sector’s championing of sustainable practices and a host of social and political initiatives. The technology has already improved to make such options more viable, and many are keen to see these succeed. Nevertheless, businesses must remain efficient and profitable to survive, and declining timber sales could test the will of the most ardent net zero champion.

Around seven million tonnes of wood is harvested from Scotland’s forests each year and transported to sawmills, board manufacturers and other processors, on 44 tonne diesel lorries. Seeing forestry’s crucial role in helping Scotland achieve its net zero target by 2045, Rural Affairs Secretary, Mairi Gougeon, noted the industry’s enthusiasm to find new and effective ways to tackle the issue, describing the forestry sector as “innovative and always using new technology to increase its business efficiencies.”

James Jones & Sons is committed to environmental governance that focuses on improving its carbon credentials.

Along with Scotlog Haulage, the company is partnering with Volvo Group and Cleaner EV in a three-year trial of electric timber trucks, monitored by Creel Maritime consultants and funded by Scottish Forestry. The project is the first of its kind in the UK and will test the use and practicality of electric wagons across the James Jones Group. A second wagon and drag truck will transport timber shipped in from the west coast to be hauled from the Port of Inverness to the West Fraser site at Dalcross.

Each of the partners have emphasised the importance of sharing their experiences of running the equipment with the industry as a whole . James Jones & Sons has already pioneered other technologies and shared its knowledge from other projects. Its extensive fleet of mobile plant includes Baumann electric sideloaders. These 120-volt machines are an effective and safe way to transport long loads across large sites, having been originally developed with the timber sector in mind. At Lockerbie sawmill, Group Fleet Advisor, David Bewley, takes an open-minded approach, helped by a working lifetime in the forestry industry and a knowledge of all manner of machines: “We have opportunities to improve efficiencies through scale, but we also have challenges local to each individual site. Every decision we make has be to be commercially viable, but we are 180 years in the making! The James Jones & Sons' governance team are extremely focussed on our long term environmental, social and performance strategy. Exploring new technology and the boundaries of what is possible is crucial to that strategy.”

Watching the electric sideloaders loading the electric timber truck, David notes it’s a first for the UK and exemplar in terms of sustainability on a world scale. “It is unlikely this would have happened as quickly without the support of Scottish Forestry, but it is also the willingness of our operators and the organisation as a whole to embrace the technology that has led us to this point today.”

The investment in purpose-built charging bays is another indication of James Jones’s determination to embrace the technology. Certainly, in parts of the world, the sideloader concept itself is more readily accepted than others, even in the timber trade. Front loading counterbalance forklifts are still used, despite the inherent problems of wider aisles, safety concerns and poor visibility. Add to that a scepticism on the capabilities of electrics to go the distance and the ubiquity of diesel trucks continued even as battery technology advanced.

Today, things are different. Cost is a big factor in electric’s favour and the machines are rapidly becoming the norm. Getting the most out of the available space, having sufficient runtimes, knowledgeable operators and battery charging procedures, together with the right partners to ensure consistent uptime, these are commonplace, everyday aspects of running an electric fleet.

This year Baumann added a new innovation, SafeLoad Assistance, to its flagship electric models to help operators avoid dangerous situations when using their sideloaders.

The system considers the load centre in dynamic situations, during normal working operations, and uses sensors within the chassis to calculate the stability limit of the truck.

It provides a warning to the driver through the dashboard screen, indicating how close they are to the limit. At present, the system does not physically limit the operation of the truck, but rather assists the operator in making safe decisions.

In addition to greater levels of safety, Baumann believes that the system will help reduce operational costs by reducing maintenance and avoidable damage.

“We are able to add these innovations having seen a complete change in the demand for electric sideloaders over the past five or six years,” says Baumann Global Marketing Manager, Tony Benson. Baumann produced its first electric machines in the early 1990s. “Previously, 80 to 85 percent of our sales were powered by IC engines. Today it’s 85 percent electric and growing.”

Brooks Brothers is another leading UK timber supplier with a reputation for high quality and service. The TTJ’s 2023 Hardwood Trader of the Year imports timber from around the world, offering service from five sites across England, with storage, ordering, selection and finishing services.

Sideloaders are a crucial part of their materials handling fleet, transporting long timber packs across the large sites. Here too the transition to electric models is well underway, with new EGX and ELX models the latest additions, providing the benefits of quieter, smoother and more efficient working.

“Since investing in these new sideloaders, our team are able to quickly and efficiently pick and load timber ready for distribution,” says group yard operations, David Pooran. “We are transitioning to electric, so we still operate some diesel machines, but electric is the first choice for all our operators.”

There’s a compelling case for electric truck use regardless of the environmental credentials. Load sensing and auto-deck levelling enhance load security, clear visibility adds safety and easy access to all areas and utilising sideloaders also allows narrow areas to be used, maximising storage and streamlining load picking. Noise, vibration, cost, servicing, all make for a more comfortable and economical option.

As Joint Managing Director at James Jones & Sons, David Leslie notes, the industry is uniquely placed to drive through change at a time when technology, investment and an environmental focus is coming together.

“Timber is our only natural renewable resource and growing commercial trees is the most effective way of capturing CO2. We are reducing timber miles through local purchasing and selling goods close to home. We are exemplars in commercial woodland planting, habitat biodiversity and carbon sequestration. We can, with the right vision, lead the way to a sustainable future.”