Forest Machinery Connectivity project is a good investment in “What If” science

By Tony Kryzanowski

There has been a trend to put much more emphasis on “applied” forestry science. That generally has been a good trend and should continue. But it is nice to see that there is still room for more “theoretical” science, as well.

A forestry-related project aiming to “future-proof” Canada’s wood products manufacturing industry as part of the federal government’s $950 million Innovation Superclusters Initiative fits within the theoretical category. Let’s hope that it ultimately delivers some practical applications—based on the project’s explanation, there certainly is a good chance of that happening.

The Forest Machinery Connectivity project, co-sponsored by Canfor, TimberWest, Lim Geomatics, UBC and FPInnovations, will use an Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) platform, described as a platform which is a network of “smart” devices that can monitor, collect, exchange, analyze and deliver valuable insights. The insights and data delivered will allow contractors, machine operators and forest managers to identify bottlenecks and improve productivity in real time—and develop best practices throughout the supply chain.

Whether the research generated by this project actually has practical application value remains to be seen but one of the benefits of this type of advanced research is that it fires the synapses, generating ideas of potential applications in ways not contemplated by the original research. It may one day deliver many practical innovations to industry, especially as there are definite indications that many forest companies are investigating and adopting new digital tools to improve efficiency and their bottom lines.

For example, one B.C. forest company is installing a new digital productivity acceleration platform, a self-help tool that aims to standardize information and reduce the number of calls that employees make for IT support to help them find the information they need. The system provider who is selling this digital tool estimates that it costs a company anywhere between $19 and $22 for each IT support call, so the investment in this digital technology is expected to pay for itself quickly.

The Forest Machinery Connectivity project is taking place under the umbrella of the Digital Supercluster, located in British Columbia. It is one of five Superclusters located strategically across Canada and was established in 2018. It was awarded $153 million in funding from the federal Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development with initial commitments of over $200 million from industry, research and post-secondary partners. Canfor and TimberWest are partners in the Digital Supercluster.

The goal of this particular Supercluster is to propel Canada forward as a digital innovation leader, drive increased economic growth, and create jobs across the country.

The Forest Machine Connectivity project has five excellent partners. Of course, FPInnovations and the UBC Faculty of Forestry are no strangers to both applied and theoretical research, and Lim Geomatics has a long and storied history working with the forest industry, particularly in the areas of digital geospatial tools and the use of LiDAR.

Dr. Kevin Lim, President and CEO of Lim Geomatics, says that this project signals a new era of real-time operational insights for logging contractors, machine operators, and forest managers. These are homegrown companies playing a bigger role in the world economy for big data and digital technology.

There is one concern that should be considered honestly as the project proceeds and perhaps this is just more an acceptance of reality.

One of the goals of the Innovation Superclusters Initiative is to create jobs. However, with greater digitization and prominence of big data usage, it is more likely that this will accelerate job loss in many functions. Consider the goals of this project, for example, which are to identify bottlenecks and improve productivity in real time and develop best practices throughout the supply chain. Who does a better job of this—humans sitting at a computer or artificial intelligence? The answer is fairly clear, and it is only a few small steps from AI operational streamlining to robotic logging equipment for such repetitive functions as log loading, skidding and log processing.

It is a lot easier to tell a robot to speed up or slow down than a human being. The next step may even include robotic logging trucks, which again can be made to speed up or slow down. Finally, robots don’t get tired, so this could lead to round the clock log production, which may be a good thing for forest companies to combat wood shortages during spring break-up.

What this Forest Machine Connectivity project will likely do is help industry address the bigger question of what role AI will play in overall forest industry activity and whether there is value in using robotic technology for repetitive functions. Perhaps it is better to leave it to the robots and encourage individuals to find more challenging endeavors which can’t be done better by AI or robots, for the time being anyway.

Logging and Sawmilling Journal
June/July 2019

On the Cover:
Tom Fisher Logging conducts selective harvesting in a forest that consists of several high-value wood species, which provides him with the opportunity to tap into a variety of markets for his wood products. Fisher very ably maintains good relations with inquisitive local cottage owners about the sound of logging equipment and resource road traffic as they enjoy their lake properties. (Cover shot of a Tigercat 822C feller buncher with a 22” hotsaw head by Tony Kryzanowski)

A win-win forest management plan
The First Nations-owned Agoke Development Corporation is working on a forest management plan that could revolutionize the economic structure of forest management in northwestern Ontario—and deliver benefits to First Nations communities and the forest industry.

Managing all the moving parts
Veteran Ontario logger Tom Fisher has plenty of experience at managing the many moving parts—including keeping local cottage owners in the know—that are involved in harvesting high value hardwood forests.

Bright future for fiberboard operation
With a steady source of residual wood supply from mill operations in the region, the MDF plant in Pembroke, Ontario is looking forward to a positive future under its new ownership, Roseburg Forest Products.

Taking their logging to a whole new level
Ontario’s Henry Petkau had modest goals when he started Henry’s Trucking—but with his son, Bob, joining the operation, they have now expanded, and added new Southstar processing equipment that has taken timber production to a whole new level.

Getting higher OSB production at High Prairie
With a $50 million capital investment, forest company Tolko Industries has re-opened and boosted the production capacity at its re-commissioned High Prairie oriented strand board plant in Alberta by 40 per cent.

Sorting it all out—log-wise
The Shoal Island logging sort in B.C. truly lives up to its name, doing upwards of up to 180 log sorts, but doing it all with the environment in mind.

B.C. FNFC launches new First Nations workforce strategy

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

The Last Word
Tony Kryzanowski says the Forest Machinery Connectivity project is a good investment in “What If” science.

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