This is how you unload a wood chip truck

The most efficient way to do something can also be the most straightforward.

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A truck arrives at an industrial facility deep in the expanding forestland of the south-eastern USA. It passes through a set of gates, over a massive scale, then onto a metal platform.

The driver steps out and pushes a button on a nearby console. Slowly, the platform beneath the truck tilts and rises. As it does, the truck’s cargo empties into a large container behind it. Two minutes later it’s empty.

This is how you unload a wood fuel truck at Drax Biomass’ compressed wood pellet plants in Louisiana and Mississippi.

What is a tipper?

“Some people call them truck dumpers, but it depends on who you talk to,” says Jim Stemple, Senior Director of Procurement at Drax Biomass. “We just call it the tipper.” Regardless of what it’s called, what the tipper does is easy to explain: it lifts trucks and uses the power of gravity to empty them quickly and efficiently.

The sight of a truck being lifted into the air might be a rare one across the Atlantic, however at industrial facilities in the United States it’s more common. “Tippers are used to unload trucks carrying cargo such as corn, grain, and gravel,” Stemple explains. “Basically anything that can be unloaded just by tipping.”

Both of Drax Biomass’ two operational pellet facilities (a third is currently idle while being upgraded) use tippers to unload the daily deliveries of bark – known in the forestry industry as hog fuel, which is used to heat the plants’ wood chip dryers – sawdust and raw wood chips, which are used to make the compressed wood pellets.

close-up of truck raising and lowering

How does it work?

The tipper uses hydraulic pistons to lift the truck platform at one end while the truck itself rests against a reinforced barrier at the other. To ensure safety, each vehicle must be reinforced at the very end (where the load is emptying from) so they can hold the weight of the truck above it as it tips.

Each tipper can lift up to 60 tonnes and can accommodate vehicles over 50 feet long. Once tipped far enough (each platform tips to a roughly 60-degree angle), the renewable fuel begins to unload and a diverter guides it to one of two places depending on what it will be used for.

“One way takes it to the chip and sawdust piles – which then goes through the pelleting process of the hammer mills, the dryer and the pellet mill,” says Stemple. “The other way takes it to the fuel pile, which goes to the furnace.”

The furnace heats the dryer which ensures wood chips have a moisture level between 11.5% and 12% before they go through the pelleting process.

“If everything goes right you can tip four to five trucks an hour,” says Stemple. From full and tipping to empty and exiting takes only a few minutes before the trucks are on the road to pick up another load.

Efficiency benefits

Using the power of gravity to unload a truck might seem a rudimentary approach, but it’s also an efficient one. Firstly, there’s the speed it allows. Multiple trucks can arrive and unload every hour. And because cargo is delivered straight into the system, there’s no time lost between unloading the wood from truck to container to system.

Secondly, for the truck owners, the benefits are they don’t need to carry out costly hydraulic maintenance on their trucks. Instead, it’s just the tipper – one piece of equipment – which is maintained to keep operations on track.

However, there is one thing drivers need to be wary of: what they leave in their driver cabins. Open coffee cups, food containers – anything not firmly secured – all quickly become potential hazards once the tipper comes into play.

“I guess leaving something like that in the cab only happens once,” Stemple says. “The first time a trucker has to clean out a mess from his cab is probably the last time.”