UNITED STATES: One of the largest lumber producers in the US is using Volvo machines to move one of its mills into the future

by Julian Gonzalez

In what appears to be a combination of the movies, Jurassic Park and Transformers, three Volvo L180GHL high-lift wheel loaders have made their way to the United States thanks in large part to a visionary, family-owned company which is determined to blaze a new trail in the US lumber industry.


Headquartered in the thick, green forests of northern Idaho, the Idaho Forest Group has added the Volvo log loaders to its Lewiston sawmill which is currently being transformed into one of the most modern and technologically advanced mills in North America.


“Our theory is to be as efficient as we can and to keep up with the technology so we can have the lowest cost. That gives us a margin that we can pay the most for logs, pay the most to the landowners so that we can continue to run and we can compete for logs. It also gives us room to reinvest in the mill and we need to reinvest,” says Dana Schmitz, Business Planning/Analyst at Idaho Forest Group.


The company first encountered the L180GHL during a visit to a mill in Austria, but it was not until they visited a facility in Michigan, which at the time owned the only L180GHL in the country, that the company decided to trust the ideally balanced Volvo machine with its ambitious plans.


“Being a purpose built machine, they’re not as big as some of the other ones we looked at, but I think they pack the load much better and distribute the weight between the two axels better,” says Schmitz. “They looked like they carried the loads a lot better than their competitors – that was one of the main selling points to us.”

The company decided to trust the ideally balanced Volvo machine with its ambitious plans

The company decided to trust the ideally balanced
Volvo machine with its ambitious plans


The company operates five mills throughout Idaho, which makes it one of the largest lumber producers in the US, with capacity for nearly one billion board feet per year and markets around the globe. The Lewiston mill alone produces one million board feet per day, 200-300 million board feet, annually.


With those numbers projected to rise significantly, optimizing yard space will be vital when the facility upgrades are completed later this year, which is the main reason why the high-lift capabilities of the L180G ended up in north Idaho.


John Cushman is the branch manager for Volvo CE dealer, Clyde/West Inc. “At this operation with the L180GHLs, they are stacking logs at an average height of 18 feet (5.5m), whereas with the conventional methods we typically use in the US we have an average unassisted stacking height of 11 feet (3.35m). They’re gaining seven feet (2.13m) of log storage in this area which is huge,” says Cushman, adding: “If you consider the cost of the storage area, then increase its capacity by 30%, then factor in the decreased travel distance for the machines this all adds up to shorter machine cycles, less wear, less fuel consumed and the opportunity to handle more logs per hour. This makes our machines a very good log handling solution offering the best utilization of the storage area at the lowest cost.”

Jim Smith (left) and Dana Schmitz of the Idaho Forest Group

Jim Smith (left) and Dana Schmitz of the Idaho Forest Group


The 13-liter, 6-cylinder straight turbocharged diesel engine provides high torque at low speeds with Volvo’s Combustion Technology, V-ACT. Low emission levels meet Tier 4 Interim/Stage IIIB engine requirements for ultimate efficiency and environmental care and the eco pedal encourages the operator to engage throttle with the appropriate amount of mechanical counter pressure (push-back).


The three Volvo L180G loaders zip across the Lewiston mill yard carrying short logs with a hydraulic-powered grapple that rotates 360 degrees. The list of positives delivered by the Volvo machine is lengthy, but for the Idaho Forest Group, fuel savings was at the top by a wide margin.


“That fuel is just so key. You look at some of the older equipment we’ve got and they’re gobbling up 12-13 gallons (45-49 liters) per hour packing logs, while these guys, the last time I looked, are using 4.5 gallons (17 liters) per hour. Mind you, they’re not as busy as they will be in the future, but that’s just amazing,” Schmitz says.


The company estimates that during the lifetime of the three Volvo machines, which they hope will be 10-15 years, their fuel savings will be US$2.5 million (€1.8 million).


Mill operators are equally enthusiastic about working in a cabin quiet enough to produce only 40-45 decibels of sound, while driving in an in-cab climate control system, with ergonomic controls and all-around visibility windows.


“It is inconceivable thinking about what the old systems were like,” says Jim Smith, lead mechanic at Lewiston Mill. “Someone was really thinking out of the box when they came out with these.”