Global politics does not always reflect our reality.
And over the past few years there has been much negative press in relation to sugar. Convincing consumers that sugar fuels obesity and citing the consumption of sugar as a causal issue in relation to other illnesses has brought dividends to many of the world’s governments and led to sugar taxes and a general review of the application of sugar as a foodstuff. Fortunately, as sugar’s demand as a foodstuff diminished, more enlightened protagonists have recognised sugar as a manageable source of energy which is relatively easy to produce and sustainable. Despite the many pressures on sugar as a product, it has provided a mainstay to Thailand’s agricultural economy for a very long time and with the current interest in renewables is likely to continue to do so into the future.
Therefore it is no big surprise to find Samart Kaset Yon, one of the specialist engineering companies who manufacture sugar cane harvesters located in the very centre of Thailand’s cane belt. The owners of Samart Kaset Yon Ltd have been involved with sugar since childhood and for the founder of the company Mr Samart Leethirananon, developing machinery for the processing of cane has been a lifelong obsession. If you ask Mr Samart why he thinks he has been so successful he will just smile and say “It’s simple, we listen to our customers”. The company started to produce cane harvesters more than 20 years ago when it became clear to Mr Samart that the harvester models that were available to Asian growers at the time were not well suited to the conditions in SE Asia. Although the use of sugar cane harvesters was not widespread, the units that were available were mainly western based products which were cumbersome in operation and needed “follow on” trucks to run beside the harvesters to collect the cane billets.
And although there were also a few light duty machines and tractor attachments from a handful of local manufacturers, their machinery was prohibitively expensive for most farmers and did not do the job that many owners needed. Rather than attempting to copy other’s designs as a basis for their machines Samart started from a clean sheet of paper and developed a design more fitting to the friable, sandy soils of Thailand and the needs of the Asian farmer. So, probably for the first time in the history of mechanical harvesting a range of machines were developed that considered the environment and the long term viability of sugar production in Asia.
Now, with many of the world’s government demanding low impact agriculture this concept has come to the fore. The edict from the Thai government alone is to discontinue the burning of cane prior to manual cutting and many other sugar producing countries are also starting to recognise the cost to the environment of current practices and looking to alleviate soil compaction and restrict other elements such as, chemical fertilizers and weed control agents. Actually, these very elements are those that Samart machines have been seeking to address over the last two decades.
The concept of “low ground pressure” to minimise soil compaction and maintain friability has always been a feature of Samart designs. Even now, with a range of 4 model lines plus variants, the widespread use of either tracks or multi wheel chassis to spread the load of the harvester is a feature that separates Samart designs from other manufacturers. Soil compaction kills cane plants, and the “low impact” concept pays dividend to the farmer in terms of minimising root damage and therefore ensuring maximum regrowth (up to 4 Ratoons) from the cut cane stalks.
Capacity was also an issue. Many Asian applications require small manoeuvrable machines to access awkward field sizes and hilly terrain. However, small previously meant low power and low capacity. Asia really needed an Asian product. High power, high capacity and stability yet with high manoeuvrability and the ability to operate in challenging terrain. From this concept, the highly successful SM200 model was born, a skid steered tracked harvester with a low centre of gravity that was capable of high cutting output. Powerful, with over 200 horsepower, the low centre of gravity gave the SM200 Compact the edge in hilly terrain. And with excellent fuel economy, which maximised profitability, it soon became a favourite with many Asian farmers. The SM 200 Compact also pioneered the concept of a “self-unloading” harvester. This meant for the first time neither loader vehicles, nor the road trucks themselves needed to venture onto the field to support the harvester. The handling system of the SM200 Compact, simply channels the billets into a cane basket at the rear of the machine as it is cut, depositing the full basket at the headland whilst turning. The ability to operate without the presence of support vehicles is unique and means that Samart harvesters can work independently and therefore access those difficult areas where previously only manual harvesting was practical. Crucially, this also means that during harvesting the cut cane stalks are not damaged by the high ground load of the support vehicle. So the stalk damage (which is common with the operation of other designs that have no capacity to hold the cane on the machines during cutting) is avoided. Because of this, the costly process of annual replanting of seed cane can be delayed as the undamaged cane can provide up to three “Ratoon” seasons before yield suffers.
Testing “Low Impact” engines as Khao Yai
Machine improvements are always being sought, and in recent years investment in engineering has been high. For example, to refine the power/fuel usage ratio of Samart machines, several different engine types and many cooling configurations have been assessed for suitability to the harvester application. Because Samart has dedicated engineering resources and no corporate allegiances, virtually any configuration of engine can be installed within the SM200 frame and a broad spectrum of types have been tested. The company aims to optimised fuel consumption by utilising engines which develop maximum torque at low speed. Because these engines generate high torque, the harvester can operate with the engine running at lower revolutions per minute (rpm) producing substantially less noise and fulfilling customer demands for efficiency and optimum fuel consumption. The lower engine speeds and the introduction of emission control means that this program offers a substantial contribution towards the environmental considerations set out by the government in the PM2.5 anti-pollution guidelines. Encouraging results during 2020 indicate that, subject to some final evaluation a new optional low speed, low noise engine line could be introduced later in 2021 which is expected to elevate customer perception as to what can be achieved when environmentally sympathetic targets are applied.
As previously mentioned, burning cane prior to manual cutting presents many problems, not least in that many Asian governments are moving to discontinue the practice, along with the banning of certain herbicides. Burning eliminates the dead stalk and leaf that is of no commercial value to the farmer and to some extent kills off pests. But if burning is not an option, the harvester route has considerable advantages that help to address these issues. Firstly, with the Samart harvester the chopped chaff which the machine strips from the stalk during the processing is blown by the machine onto the cut field. This “blanket” supresses weeds as it breaks down and provides a mulch for the ratoon cane. Secondly, the Samart base cutter assembly cuts the stalk very close to the field surface, thus minimising the opportunity for pests and disease to attack the ratoon stalk during the dormant period prior to regrowth. And lastly, and perhaps the most obvious reason, simply discontinuing cane burning obviates the risks to the environment, personnel and wildlife associate with this dangerous practice.
These handling systems were both revised during the last 2 years. With the changes to the stalk stripper/blower during 2018 (produced a finer chopped product than previous), and the new base cutter assembly which was developed in the Covid period (optimises cut stalk length and improves durability). The Samart development program is on-going and ensures that machine operators are given top performance in terms of crop recovery whilst optimising power demand through electronic management. Of course, lower fuel demand and reduced noise during operation is always welcome, and it underlines Mr Samart’s commitment to make mechanical harvesting with Samart machines an environmentally desirable process.
Although Samart as a company have been a champion of low impact harvesting for more than two decades decade it is encouraging to know that this concept, is now being supported by governments. During the Covid period Samart engineers have been working tirelessly to perfect processes which will give Asian farmers more access to the harvesting tools that they really need to enhance their production. Samart designs recognise that Asian conditions are not always perfect, that machines do not need complexity or luxury, and that above all they must be reliable and easy to maintain. Whilst breakdown is an inevitable risk of using any machine, the availability of critical parts without having to wait whilst they are produced and shipped from a factory on the other side of the world is crucial. Put simply, reliability, availability, economy and the knowledge that the engineers are only a phone call away is how Samart likes to operate. In the future, the Samart values will become normal and the value of “Low Impact” will be recognised. At the moment for Samart customers, low impact means quiet, and environmentally sound, but in the future the improved field husbandry, enhanced fuel savings and reduced wear on the machine and its components will be appreciated as a strong contributor in the “Full Life Value” calculations. Understanding this now, is becoming crucial in order to move “profitably” forward. But, Samart Leethirananon already knows why the machines are successful, he has a formula: Design for Asia, by Asia, in Asia.