Alberta’s Millar Western Forest ProductsForest planning tools can generate BIG $ SAVINGS

Alberta’s Millar Western Forest Products says there is the potential to save millions of dollars in its woodland operations with new forest planning tools.

By Tony Kryzanowski

The AFRIDS forest inventory planning platform allows woodlands employees at Millar Western, like GIS analyst Chad St.Amand, to access visual forest inventory data on tablets or smart phones in the field.

When a well-established and respected forest company like Alberta-based Millar Western Forest Products Ltd says it has made an investment in new forest planning technology that has the potential to save millions of dollars, the rest of the industry pays attention.

According to Chad St.Amand, a GIS analyst at Millar Western, the company is likely to achieve significant improvements to its bottom line thanks to its AFRIDS forest planning and decision support platform. AFRIDS stands for Advanced Forest Resource Inventory Decision Support Tool.

AFRIDS, along with its cost planning module, is marketed by Lim Geomatics Inc. and was developed as a result of feedback from the company’s forestry clients.

“Spreadsheets have been the way to do operational planning, but spreadsheets don’t have a spatial component to them,” explains St.Amand. “It’s just a bunch of numbers. That’s the big difference with the AFRIDS’ world because it is a Web-based, visual tool. The value estimations are very quick. I can produce results in half-an-hour, where it took days to produce similar results without the tool.”

Alberta’s Millar Western Forest ProductsSt.Amand emphasizes that AFRIDS will not replace established Trimble Forestry GIS-based planning tools, but supplement them. He says that the strength in AFRIDS and its cost planning module is the ability to upload spatial harvest blocks and quickly calculate the most profitable way to get the right wood to the right mill, and the end product to the consumer.

“That quick cost comparison and understanding the cause and effect is a huge value that Millar Western, and others, are going to see,” says St.Amand, who previously used AFRIDS while working at another forestry company. He brought that knowledge and experience to Millar Western.

Millar Western manages between 300 and 400 harvest blocks a year, and St.Amand says that there is a real opportunity to realize impressive cost savings with AFRIDS, even at a medium-sized firm like Millar Western. However, he recognizes that the company is quite small compared to other major companies within the Canadian forest sector. If applied at some of the industry’s larger forest planning operations, their savings could be exponentially greater.

Not only has AFRIDS proven its value in improving harvesting and transportation efficiency, but it is also assisting with the delicate balancing act of planning forest operations in and around sensitive habitat, in compliance with government requirements. With AFRIDS, Millar Western can quickly develop cause-and-effect scenarios according to provincial habitat management plans, which helps in choosing effective strategies that balance the needs of different species like caribou with those of the industry.

Millar Western has been using AFRIDS for just over a year and the cost planning module for about six months. Previously, they were working almost exclusively with Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. St.Amand says that AFRIDS has become a vital tool for employees at the company.

Millar Western operates sawmills in Whitecourt and Fox Creek, as well as a BCTMP pulp mill in Whitecourt. It also recently purchased Spruceland Millworks, a producer of specialty wood products located west of Edmonton, in Acheson, Alberta.

St.Amand says that including AFRIDS into the Millar Western forest inventory planning mix has caused a bit of a culture change, but staff and management are recognizing the benefits quickly.

“The easiest comparison that you can make with AFRIDS is Google Maps,” says St.Amand. “People have embraced Google Maps very quickly—it doesn’t matter your age or who you are. It doesn’t take long to understand what Google Maps is trying to do. AFRIDS falls into that same category.”

Alberta’s Millar Western Forest ProductsThe AFRIDS platform supplemented by its cost planning module allows Millar Western woodlands personnel to perform work that would have previously taken days in just a few hours. The company says applying this technology has the potential to save it millions of dollars.

Built on the SRI ArcGIS platform, Lim Geomatics says that AFRIDS has the ability to unlock the power of LiDAR data and imagery with an easy-to-use interface that’s accessible anywhere with an Internet connection. LiDAR, or Light Detection and Ranging, is well known in the forest industry as a remote sensing tool that uses infrared laser pulses transmitted from an aircraft to map the surface of the earth and those features found on it, which is presented as a three dimensional point cloud of the landscape below. LiDAR can present precise horizontal and vertical dimensions of a forest cutblock, making it possible to calculate height and diameter of trees, which can then be used to calculate fibre volume. Aerial photography is less accurate because it is limited to delivering only a visual image of the top of the forest canopy. Lim Geomatics says AFRIDS, combined with a forest inventory produced from LiDAR, can deliver volume estimates with up to 95 per cent accuracy.

There have been significant advances over the past two decades in how LiDAR data is captured. Twenty years ago, point data was captured at a rate of 2,000 laser pulses per second. Now, due to technological advances, it is more like 300,000 laser pulses per second. The level of detail has also improved exponentially, evolving from 10 points per square metre to as much as 300 points per square metre.

Lim Geomatics helped Millar Western do the necessary modeling and analysis for 2.5 million hectares to create an advanced forest inventory from LiDAR data. With that data uploaded and staff trained in the use of AFRIDS, the cost planning module was added.

The results being experienced by Millar Western do not surprise Kevin Lim, President and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at Lim Geomatics. He says that any forest company can duplicate what Millar Western and others have achieved, adding that industry interest has caught fire.

“Currently, there is not a day that goes by where someone doesn’t reach out to us, wanting to understand how our technology can help their forestry business address some of those pain points of data sharing, how to collaborate with internal stakeholders and external contractors, automate work flows etc,” says Lim.

What gratifies him these days is that after more than a decade of promoting this LiDAR-based forest management planning tool, the Canadian forest industry is finally coming around in a big way to recognize the value of what today’s powerful planning tools can bring to a forest company. The goal of the AFRIDS platform and add-ons like the cost planning module is to help foresters avoid getting caught up in the weeds of technology and help them to do their work.

Lim is in a unique position, having written his PhD related to LiDAR technology and its potential application in forestry. His academic work in the fields of GIS and remote sensing at Queen’s University, University of Waterloo and University of Guelph led to the incorporation of Lim Geomatics in 2006. The company now has LiDAR-based products all around the world.

In the bigger picture, what the Millar Western example is demonstrating is the promise of LiDAR working in combination with advancements in more powerful and easier-to-use computers and GIS systems. As more tech savvy employees enter the workforce, Lim says younger workers well-acquainted with the power of tablets and smart phones are eager to work with new forest planning tools that work on devices familiar to them.

“In the past, it was very difficult to get map data onto the Internet,” says Lim. “Today, that data is published on the Web and you just decide who you want to share it with, and they can consume it with their browser, their Smartphone or their tablet.”

While forest companies often deal with service providers where the forest sector is only part of their business, the forest sector has historically represented as much as 80 per cent of Lim Geomatics’ business. To date, it has produced 26 million hectares of forest inventory using LiDAR, which it believes is the most of any company in the world.

Speaking with Lim, it’s clear that he is well aware of what LiDAR can offer and where it has its limitations. He says that the information provided by LiDAR will never fully replace boots-on-the ground. For companies to generate the data needed to make good forest management and business decisions, it takes the combination of both. However, the role of people working at ground level is redefined when working with AFRIDS.

Lim readily admits that one of the shortcomings of using LiDAR for area-based forest inventories is its inability to differentiate between individual tree species, as typically the sampling point intensity is not geared towards analyses at the individual tree level, but stand level. Instead, wood species information from existing inventories, such as Vegetation Resources Inventory (VRI), can be leveraged to allocate volume to species. For conifer and deciduous species groupings, LiDAR does a fairly good job of being able to tell the difference between a stand of poplar and a stand of pine.

Lim says that the company’s LiDAR-based technology is playing an important role as a tool to encourage growth and investment within the bioeconomy. Because of its ability to accurately predict forest inventory volumes and above ground biomass, employing this technology makes it easier to identify forest resources more suitable for bioenergy products when making business cases for facilities like bioenergy power and wood pellet plants.

In addition to Millar Western, some other North American companies using the Lim Geomatics AFRIDS technology for their forest inventory planning include American Forest Management, Tembec, which is now owned by Rayonier Advanced Materials, Tolko and Weyerhaeuser.

Logging and Sawmilling Journal
November 2018

On the Cover:
It can take loggers time to get used to a new location when they move their equipment—new terrain, different timber, and perhaps different weather conditions. But Swiss logger Beni Brunner had to get used to a whole new country and continent when he set up logging operations in the B.C. Interior with his Valentini remote control tower yarder. Read all about Brunner’s B.C. experiences beginning on page 10 of this issue. (Cover photo by Paul MacDonald)

The robots are coming—to home building
A forest industry advisor recently warned wood producers that the robots are coming to American home building.

Logging in B.C., Swiss style
Swiss logger Beni Brunner has set up a remote control tower yarder operation in the B.C. Interior, and the equipment is working well in some very challenging conditions.

Waste-not sawmill
B.C.’s Kyahwood Forest Products has a green waste-not approach to business: it uses trim ends for its feedstock, the plant’s residuals are used for manufacturing wood pellets, and some of the sawdust generated at Kyahwood is used to heat the mill.

Forest planning tools can generate big $ savings
Alberta’s Millar Western Forest Products says there is the potential to save millions of dollars in its woodland operations with new forest planning tools.

Hobby sawmill takes off
What started as a hobby sawmill operation for retired teachers June and Larry Scouten has grown into a successful business—and they can now point to hundreds of fences, decks and docks in Ontario that Scouten White Cedar has been part of creating.

New and Noted at Portland’s Timber Processing & Energy Expo
We take a look at what was New and Noted at the recent Timber Processing & Energy Expo (TP&EE) in Portland, Oregon.

The Edge
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre and Alberta Innovates.

The Last Word
The forest industry faces some tough sledding with multiple challenges ahead, says Jim Stirling.

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