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The Countdown to Year 2000

Mill and woods operations could allbe severely affected by the Year 2000 problem in computers. Industry experts offer some advice on how to escape the "Millenium Bug".

By Jim Stirling
Copyright 1998. Contact publisher for permission to use.

Tt's the current curse of the microchip, but ignore the Year 2000 problem at your peril. The forest industry appears to be heeding that advice and is taking the phenomenon seriously. Most large, medium and small forest companies are reexamining their computerized information and manufacturing systems, identifying problem areas and investing time and money to alleviate them. Procrastinators better wake up and smell the coffee - December 31, 1999 is looming.

The Year 2000 problem, or the "Millennium Bug" as it is also called, began some time ago. Years were referred to in two digits instead of four as a method of conserving computer memory, which was an issue at the time. Thus 1998 is stored as simply 98. Computer memory is now vastly superior and hugely cheaper, but the spacesaving practice persisted.

On January 1, 2000, uncorrected computer systems will recognize 00 as 1900 throwing calculations, process controls and all date- and clock-oriented material into costly confusion. Embedded chips in machinery and equipment may need replacing and software systems may need to be repaired.

Larger Canadian businesses seem to have got their Year 2000 remedial act together faster than small ones, according to Statistics Canada. Ninety per cent of companies with more than 250 employees were taking informal or fomial steps to combat the problem in a November 1997 survey. The figure dropped to 70 per cent for companies with 51 to 250 employees and 40 per cent for small companies with six to 50 employees. Large companies have more Year 2000 issues to identify, with more complicated and more internal and external interdependent systems than their smaller counterparts.

Countdown to 2000

The forest industry across Canada is taking steps to identify problem areas stemming from the Year 2000 problem with computer systems.

Northwood Inc. of Prince George, BC, is an example of a large integrated forest company not caught napping. It has a well-defined Year 2000 readiness program on full implementation schedule. Northwood operates a pulp mill, four sawmills and a plywood plant, and is involved with joint ventures in central British Columbia.

The company commissioned the Gartner Group to complete an assessment of the Year 2000 problem's impact on its operations. The research organization's initial findings indicated process control Systems were the most critically aff&cted, with the cost of potential failures ranging from $5,000 to $400,000 per day. Repairing in-house systems was estimated at $5.5 million.

Armed with that assessment, Northwood's senior agement initiated the Y2K Project in September 1997 to address the challenges. The move was in concert with parent company Noranda's Year 2000 readiness programs. The Y2K Project team has involved up to 15 people.

A major problem is finding out and testing how an embedded chip used in the process control system of a sawmill, for example, will function with the Millennium's advent. "You can't shut the mill down," points out Y2K Project spokesperson Evangeline Studney. She was drafted to the Y2K Project from her position as Help Desk Administrator. Northwood created the Help Desk as a reflection of the technological change encompassing company operations. Northwood has a network of about 800 personal computers and the Help Desk is the place to go when people encounter computer problems.

"One of the biggest challenges with the Y2K Project is the idea people have that it won't affect them," says Studney. An integral part of the Y2K Project is a communication and awareness process so company employees understand the problems and how they affect their working environment. Northwood used group awareness sessions to get the idea across and tried to relate it to home life, explains Studney.

If people are buying new computers, they should ensure they are Year 2000-ready. Assuming new equipment is ready for the Millennium can be a mistake. "In 1997, 75 per cent of desktop computers were not Year 2000 ready," she warns.

The Y2K Project has examined the company's network of computers and software to ensure their readiness. "But it's not just us at Northwood. We have to look to people we buy our supplies from and sell our products to," she adds.

Identifying the supply chain reflects the complicated facets of the Year 2000 problem. Companies don't want to discover what having the wrong dates can mean to running a chip truck fleet, for example, or scheduling rail car shipments. There can also be legal implications if contractual or other agreements are not met. Northwood plans to have its Y2K Project together by December 31, 1998. That gives the company a year's grace to ensure the system's readiness and to troubleshoot and adjust if necessary.

The Year 2000 problem appears to be a non-issue for the Northern Forest Products Association's member companies in central and northern BC. "Companies have been working on it for quite some time. I would think their boards of directors would insist on it," observes Greg Jadrzyk, association president. "If it were a problem, it would have been discussed in our many, many meetings' " He notes the Council of Forest Industries of BC and its family associations (including the NFPA) are up and ready for the year 2000.

Many companies are out there, ready to help sawmills and logging companies with their Year 2000 problems. "I think everyone has pretty much come to grips with the problem and is dealing with it to some degree or another. They either have a program and are implementing it and, if not, they're planning to get a program in place. Some of them are not taking it as seriously as we think they should," cautions Michael Gurney, account manager with Tava Technologies. Tava includes Advanced Control Technology and concentrates on sawmilling and manufacturing customers from its Albany, Oregon headquarters.

Those not taking the Year 2000 threat seriously should take heed. "You always ran the risk in a processor-based system of an unexpected shutdown and that is a severe safety and maintenance issue, including possible damage to equipment," says Gurney. "We offer a solution to the Year 2000 problem. It's a program that explains the methodology from the initial stages to fixing the problems. It's very step-by-step and customers can use as little or as much as they need for their requirements' " The product leaves a paper trail through the remediation process. "Customers can say we had a problem, we've taken the steps and believe we're now compliant," says Gurney.

Alex Berbeniuk has been talking about the Year 2000 phenomenon since 1995, when fewer people were prepared to listen. Berbeniuk owns Systematic Solutions Ltd. in Victoria, BC. The company provides hardware and software services to the logging industry, along with accounting, distribution and ongoing upgrades. Customers are those without the in-house resources to deliver those services and typically have less than 200 employees.

Berbeniuk estimates 75 per cent of companies Systematic Controls is involved with are committed to delivering Year 2000 solutions. He says it's "nose to the grindstone" time, and most people realize that. His company instituted a major Year 2000 program last July. The company has adjusted its priorities for 1999 to ongoing maintenance and trouble calls and Year 2000 issues. New projects may well have to take a back seat, he predicts.

Berbeniuk notes that rather than making Year 2000 adjustments to existing software, some companies believe it's a opportunity to upgrade to a new package. "There's a lot of shopping going on out there." But as he points out it may not be a smart move. "It's not cheap to install a whole new database. It's a big undertaking." Other implications are the time it takes and the training required to become familiar with a whole new system. Berbeniuk says all software companies are going to be busy with Year 2000 implications. Time for training will be at a premium and a last-minute rush will stretch resources to the limit.

"For people who drag their feet too long with their Year 2000 problems, there's always the chance they may not make it in time."

Global Positioning Systems (GPS) are playing an increasing role in managing and coordinating activity in Canada's forests. The Year 2000 bug will affect GPS hardware and the computers used to process data.

But there's another unwelcome wrinkle poised to create problems for GPS system users prior to the Millennium. It's called the 'End of Week Rollover' phenomenon and it will arise August 22, 1999 at 0:00 Greenwich Mean Time, says Isabelle Forgues. She's with the Forest Engineering Research of Canada's Eastern Division in Pointe Claire, Quebec.

Dates in GPS receivers were calculated by the number of weeks elapsed from January 6, 1980. The original specification defined cycles of 1,024 weeks, which is due to expire next August 22. In some systems, the date will set back to January, 1980 instead of starting a new cycle of 1,024 weeks. Or they may simply get the date wrong. Either way, it causes errors for accurate geographical positioning and thus undermines the integrity of their system.

"Call the manufacturer of your GPS system well in advance of August 1999 to see what's happening with your receiver," recommends Forgues. She notes some manufacturers appear coy about whether the 'End of Week Rollover' problem will affect their systems. "It's strange to keep it secret if there's a problem or not." On the other hand, she says other manufacturers will correct their GPS receivers at no charge. "But many will have to change their receivers," she predicts. "It's a very strange problem' she says, adding the $64,000 question: "Why did they not think of it before?"

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