Hilary Burke delves into the history of Ponsse to uncover how one of forestry’s leading machine manufacturers made its name.

FINLAND’S forests cover around three-quarters of the country’s landmass. The timberlands owned by the forest industries and the state tend to lie in the north, where tree growth is poorer. Private individuals and families own about 60 per cent of the forested land, but contribute 80 per cent of the nation’s timber supplies. The average holding is 30 ha, while many are much smaller.

The ‘family forest’, often with multiple owners and associated farmland, plays a key role in sustaining the whole of the forest industry chain, according to the Finnish Forest Association. The organisation adds that a couple of decades ago, “the typical family forester was a farmer living in the country with little formal education”.

Einari Vidgrén was born in the small town of Vieremä in Savonia and could well have chosen to work locally and stay on the family farm, Mäkelä. After finishing his elementary education, logging became his commitment and, with his frame saw, he was prepared to travel to indulge his passion and earn a living.

Keen to improve his production rates, Einari looked into the possibility of investing in one of the purpose-built forestry forwarders. He was unsure of the sturdiness of the designs and felt that he might be able to construct a more suitable machine himself. The prototype that eventually left his primitive workshop to shift timber in the woods was named Dino.

Its performance was impressive enough to persuade Einari that there could be a future in constructing forestry machines, if suitable premises were acquired. The local municipality was persuaded to invest in a building to allow the first production model to take shape.

Local forestry contractor Eero Vainikainen was on the lookout for extraction machinery to increase his production. His forestry manager had suggested he consider either a Valmet or a Volvo machine. With a substantial investment to commit to his business, Eero was keen to investigate all the possibilities available. A visit to the new Vieremä works was not totally convincing. The two halves of the chassis were still standing on the stocks and the power plant – a Valmet diesel engine – was lying alongside.

Forestry Journal: The S15 was introduced in the 1980s as the successor to the S20. A standard rear bogie improved traction. Many other design modifications, such as the curved bolsters, maintained the carrying capacity but still reduced the machine’s weight.The S15 was introduced in the 1980s as the successor to the S20. A standard rear bogie improved traction. Many other design modifications, such as the curved bolsters, maintained the carrying capacity but still reduced the machine’s weight.

The naming of the first – and all subsequent production machines – was a little curious, to say the least. A well-known character in the village, Ponsse was a somewhat scruffy mongrel that wandered around the settlement, often seen in the vicinity of the workshop. It could not be denied that Ponsse lacked the sleek coat and fine lines of a pedigree. Nevertheless, the animal was a top-class hunter and well respected as a dog ‘fit for purpose’.

Locals visiting the workshop remarked that the forestry forwarder being assembled within was not dissimilar in appearance. Welding burns and grinding burrs, along with the rusty stains found on freshly worked metal, made for a distinctive colour scheme. Finely painted livery and aesthetic curvatures would not be applied until the ‘Ponsse’ forestry machine – as it had now been christened – proved its worth in the working environment.

Persuaded to go out into the forest and watch Dino – the prototype – delivering timber to the roadside, prospective purchaser Eero Vainikainen was impressed. For Einari Vidgrén and his recently appointed engineer, Jouko Kelppe, it was ‘all systems go’ and the contractor, Ponsse’s first customer, was able to drive his new forwarder out of the Vieremä yard a few months later.

When storms devastated the forests of Germany in 1974, Finnish contractors were drafted in to help clear the damaged timber. Logging crews and their Volvos and Valmets prepared to cross the Baltic to help their German neighbours. Ponsse machines, too, were winched aboard the ferries and unloaded onto the north-German quaysides. As ever, rumours were doing the rounds that there were fortunes to be made.

The international exposure did the company no harm at all. Moreover, contractors from all parts of Finland now knew there was one other option when it came to upgrading their extraction equipment – the sturdy machines built in the small Savonian town of Vieremä. A good woodcutter has the ability to work hard and wear well. They expected no less from the machinery used to extract the timber. The Ponsse S20 – introduced in 1980 – was designed with this principle in mind.

The factory was kept busy, with 50 S20s being turned out in the next three years. Compared to similar machines produced by long-established manufacturers, they were not found wanting. The Finnish contractors had all, of course, learned their trade using horse extraction. The Finnhorse was not as heavy as most of the breeds that hauled timber out of the European forests, but it was no less efficient. It was the animal’s ‘conformation’ that made it so suited to work in the forest.

The next design to be introduced was the S15. As in the Finnhorse, the skeleton of the machine allowed for a very even distribution of power. Strengthening was concentrated at the key points and was proportional to the stresses involved. While the new forwarder may have been considered a downsize, the 10-tonne machine was still able to transport 14 tonnes of timber in the wood and tractive effort could still match that of its heavier competitors.

The benefits were noticeable on the forest floor, too. A forwarder with a lighter footprint was desirable for reducing damage to the soil structure, especially where the wheels of the new processors and harvesters had already left their marks. Ponsse was to move into mechanised harvesting development itself in 1985 with the introduction of the HS520 harvester head.

Various models of the grapple harvesting heads already available had been trialled on Einari Vidgrén’s timber production sites. None had proven particularly efficient or reliable. It was considered that a superior design could be developed and constructed at the Vieremä facility to widen the Ponsse machinery range. Unfortunately, the HS520 did not totally outclass the competition.

The performance of the 20 or so HS520s produced did provide enough evidence for engineers to confidently draw up the blueprint for a grapple harvesting head that would optimise the technology then available. Within a year, the HS60 was rolling off the production line and its performance was judged impressive enough to allow research and development to concentrate on more technically complex aspects of mechanised harvesting.

1990 saw the Kajaani loader control system introduced. The innovative Ponsse Opti PC-based measuring and information system followed a couple of years later and both would be employed to great effect on the company’s new lightweight harvesting team. The HS10 harvester and S10 forwarder were introduced in 1992.

The success of the new machines – both in Finland and abroad – gave Ponsse the confidence to rapidly expand the range. The upgraded Cobra HS10 and the new Ergo HS16 harvesters appeared in 1996. At first sight, the most obvious step forward of the decade was the adoption of the now familiar Ponsse livery – grey and yellow. Behind the scenes, the Vieremä works had been expanded, the distribution network upgraded and global contacts nurtured. Wherever in the world ‘cut-to-length’ timber harvesting was an efficient option, Ponsse was now in a position to offer forest managers and contractors forest machines that were ideally suited to their needs.

Forestry Journal: The Ponsse International Roadshow arrives in the forests of Central Wales in May 2007. Four machines were on show; the Bear and Ergo harvesters and the Elephant and Buffalo forwarders.The Ponsse International Roadshow arrives in the forests of Central Wales in May 2007. Four machines were on show; the Bear and Ergo harvesters and the Elephant and Buffalo forwarders.

The new millennium saw the full range of Ponsse machines convert to Mercedes-Benz power units. The two businesses made the transition very successfully and Einari Vidgrén, in 2003, on the occasion of his 60th birthday, initiated the ‘Ponsse Roadshow’.  The latest developments in forestry machinery visited 10 locations across Finland in the early spring.

For the international markets, a new harvester and forwarder pairing was being produced in the Ponsse factory, and prototypes were undergoing trials in the Finnish forests.  The Bear and the Elephant were officially unveiled at the Finnmetko forestry exhibition in 2006. On 15 January 2007, the ‘Ponsse International Roadshow’ left the Vidgrén family farm at Mäkelä for a Europe-wide series of timber harvesting demonstrations. The Finnish Prime Minister had just opened the latest expansion of the works at Vieremä.

Before arriving in Wales in mid May, the Bear harvester and Elephant forwarder had travelled through the Baltic countries, Poland, Germany, Austria, France and Belgium.  The Ponsse crew members were left in no doubt that there was a demand for heavier cut-to-length machinery to handle bigger timber. The Douglas firs of the Forestry Commission’s Abbeycwmhir Forest provided a suitably challenging workload before the Ponsse machines visited the Sitka spruce forests of the Scottish Borders.

The Bear and Elephant were accompanied by an Ergo harvester and a Buffalo forwarder. A key star of the domestic Roadshow, three years earlier, was absent. The Buffalo ‘Dual’ had been unveiled in 2002 as a combination machine able to alternate between harvesting and forwarding duties. Sales of the machine were expected to be strongest in the expansive northern forests of small and medium-sized timber. The customer was likely to be a young farmer/forester keen to build a career on timber harvesting, just like Einari Vidgrén in Vieremä, over three decades earlier.