Have truck, will travel. Eric Robinson covers a large swath of the northeastern U.S. as part of CJ Logging Equipment’s mobile service unit. Photos courtesy of Eric Robinson.
In logging, they say it takes iron to move wood. Eric Robinson’s job is to keep the iron moving. He’s part of the mobile service unit at CJ Logging Equipment, a Booneville, New York-based company that operates throughout the Northeast. Every day he’s on the road, and in the woods, helping loggers keep their big equipment running – skidders, feller-bunchers, loaders, delimbers, chippers, forwarders, you name it.
For Robinson, it’s as much a calling as it is a job. “I was born and raised in an area that was full of logging equipment, and from a young age, I was always in the woods. I just took an interest in tearing things apart and putting them back together,” he said. What started as a hobby became a career when he was offered a job as a forest industry mechanic right out of high school. He started working at CJ Logging Equipment almost six years ago.
Robinson was already trained and certified in various electronic and hydraulic systems when he arrived at CJ, but there was still a learning curve because the company deals with brands he hadn’t worked with before. He now specializes in servicing the CJ equipment lineup: Tigercat, TimberPro, and Komatsu, among other manufacturers. “They’re all basically the same as far as hydraulics and electronics go, but they all have their own twist as far as how they do things,” he said of various logging equipment brands. “Just like with an Apple computer and a Windows-based computer; they do the same things, they just have different operating systems.”
And even within brands, things are always changing as technology advances. The manufacturers keep Robinson and the other service pros up to date with these changes, with online training programs and classes at their facilities. “And we have good relationships with our manufacturers, so if we run into a problem that we can’t fix on our own, we can call them directly, and they help us work through it,” he said.
The engines in today’s equipment are becoming incredibly sophisticated, especially with recent Tier 4 diesel emissions rules, Robinson explained. “It’s not like an old 230 Timberjack skidder, where you could fix just about anything with a pair of water-pump pliers, a hammer, and a Crescent wrench.” Servicing modern logging equipment is a complex business. In many cases, when he’s called in, Robinson’s work begins not with a wrench and a flashlight but by connecting the machine to his laptop.
Adding to the challenge is the fact that Robinson rarely gets a chance to work in the controlled environment of a shop. “About 90 percent of what I do is out in the field,” he said. So he brings his shop with him, traveling in a Freightliner truck with a Summit body, complete with a 12,000-pound crane, a welder, a generator, an air compressor, and as many parts as he can carry. “It’s a mobile garage,” he said.
Robinson can usually get his truck in as far as a log truck is venturing to pick up wood. If the equipment is at that landing, or can be towed there, the job becomes easier. But often, the machine is up in the woods in an inaccessible spot – on steep or wet terrain, for example. “I’ve had to walk a mile and a half before,” he said. And those treks usually are repeated several times to get the right tool or part. The goal in such cases is to get the equipment running just well enough to get it near his truck, where more comprehensive repairs can be made.
Of course, when you’re dealing with a skidder or feller-buncher that might weigh upwards of 50,000 pounds sitting lifeless in the woods, it may be impossible to tow the unit out. In some cases, access roads need to be built out to wherever the machine is sitting to get his truck there. In those cases, repair work requires not just tools and a laptop, but perhaps a bulldozer.
Adding to these logistical challenges is the fact that a lot of logging, and therefore a lot of repair work, takes place in the winter. “It seems like things never break when it’s nice out and it’s 80 degrees. Usually, it’s raining or snowing or 20 degrees below zero,” Robinson said. “In severe cold, we’ll try to get some tarps around the machine and get some heat in there. When it’s 20 below zero, it doesn’t take long for your fingers to get cold.”
When Robinson gets a call from the owner or operator of a piece of logging equipment that needs service, he takes on the role of a physician, asking for the symptoms and then trying to interpret the responses. “They may think it’s a hydraulic problem, but I need to go back through my training and previous experience and think, ‘What else could it be?’ Because being out in the field, I might not have everything I need on my truck to fix the problem. So I try to take as much with me as I possibly can to address the symptoms that the owner or operator is describing to me.” When he gets there, the hydraulic problem may be serious, it may be something completely different, or it may be a relatively simple electronic problem that he can fix with his laptop.
Robinson tries to prepare for all contingencies, but even so, it’s impossible to carry every part for every type of equipment he services. “That’s where it requires a lot of teamwork. At CJ’s, we pride ourselves on being a team, from management right down to the person in the service room and the parts room. Sometimes, they’ll jump in their truck and bring a part from Booneville out to wherever I’m working to get a machine up and running that day,” he said. For a logger, downtime is lost revenue, so the goal is always to get them back to moving wood as quickly as possible.
The technicians in the CJ Logging Equipment mobile service unit service customers in New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and West Virginia. Robinson is typically on the road all week, returning home to Hope, New York, on the weekends. He often is assigned the more complex service work and travels to one area for a week, setting up a schedule not only to complete any needed repairs in that region, but also to stop by and check in with customers to see how their equipment is performing and make any tweaks that might help them operate more efficiently. “It’s follow-ups, PR with customers – if I’m going by an operation where I know they’re working, I’ll stop in just to see how things are going and to see if they need anything,” he explains. “Sometimes I can hook up the laptop and change just a little something for the operator to make him happy.” Or maybe a customer needs a particular part, or new tires or tracks, and Robinson can coordinate with the CJ product support department to get them what they need. Or he might help demo a piece of equipment to a new customer.
Robinson said that loggers, who work in isolated areas with complex and expensive equipment that requires specialized expertise to work on, appreciate knowing that they are not on their own; that they have this support system behind them to keep them running. He knows something about how they feel.
“I couldn’t possibly do this job without the support of my family back home,” said Robinson. While it’s his role to keep logging equipment running, it’s his wife, 14-year-old daughter, and 13-year-old son who keep things running at home when he’s away during the week. “I’m making sacrifices, and they’re making sacrifices – it humbles me, knowing that they’re at home supporting me.”
It’s a busy job, and finding downtime is difficult. And when he does have free time, Robinson is likely to still be found out in the woods, hunting, fishing, and camping in the Adirondack mountains. For Robinson, job satisfaction comes from working with the loggers, with many of whom he’s developed relationships over the years, and being able to learn and do new things constantly. “I do so many different things that every day is different. I love that.”
Wagner Forest Management, Ltd., is pleased to underwrite Northern Woodlands’ series on forest entrepreneurs.