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Will the Internet of Trees Be the Next Game Changer?

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Forestry and its related industries are something of a technology laggard, unlike agriculture, where cutting-edge technologies are being aggressively adopted. But the prospect of the industry building an “Internet of Trees” to drive efficiency, improve quality, and improve awareness of soil conditions is emerging. Eric Hansen and Scott Leavengood, both professors at Oregon State University’s Wood Science and Engineering department, discuss how the Internet of Things is being used in the forest sector and the implications for the industry’s future. Michael Fitzgerald, contributing editor atMIT Sloan Management Review, conducts the interview.

When we hear about the Internet of Things, we don’t think Internet of Trees. What’s happening in this field?

On the forestry side of things, there are two general areas that are important. One of them is ecological monitoring. That is done in lots of different ways now, often with people out there measuring things. As we learn how to improve the measurement process so that we can collect data continuously, monitoring can be improved and made more precise. If we think about all the forest fires that occur every year, more sophisticated sensoring would allow early detection of the biggest risk areas and the potential for isolating specific locations. That’s being done now at some level with satellites, but the ability to sensor everywhere would be an important and maybe even cost-saving next step.

In New Zealand, log segregation is a big thing with their plantation forestry. Being able to identify wood quality in a standing tree, and to send the right log to the right mill is a really hot topic right now. And in Europe, there was a multinational project called Flexwood (flexible wood supply chain), that focused on sending the right trees to the right processing facilities.

Sawmills, in general, are set up to do one thing very fast and very well: make structural lumber or make appearance-grade lumber for furniture or cabinets or whatever. For example, a log in Oregon — a larger log, meaning not a pulp kind of log — could go to a sawmill or to a mill that produces structural products like plywood or laminated veneer lumber. The highest-quality log ideally would go to the mill that requires higher-quality wood. Ideally, some sort of in-forest monitoring of the trees or grading in standing trees has already been done so they know right away which facility to send it to, whether it’s a log that’s graded best for furniture or millwork or structural lumber or plywood. But if it’s already at the sawmill, it may not make sense to reship it. If it had been determined in the forest where it should go, you would be maximizing value for the whole value chain.

There’s been some sorting of logs in forests. How are they doing it?

They’ve tried various sensors, like near-infrared or another one where they bore into the tree and remove a small segment of wood that they then scan for density. There’s a device that was developed in New Zealand, called the Hitman, where they thump a standing tree to force sound waves through it, and from that they can estimate wood density.

Is this Internet of Trees hypothetical or actual? How might it emerge?

It’s hypothetical. The ideal situation would be to have some sensors out in the field that would be sending data, but to do that they would have to be embedded within the tree itself. I don’t know of anything like that that’s being done, except in high-value situations, such as trees used for wood for musical instruments.

What I see as the next frontier in this field is networking machines in the mill. Right now, the mills get the logs and scan them with equipment like laser systems, ultrasound, and video cameras to determine what’s inside them and how to get the best value from them. But the machines within the mill aren’t talking to each other, so no one knows whether they’re getting what they expected from the logs. Once information can flow from one machine to another, they can bring that information back into the forest and say, “Well, we harvested from this north part of the ridge. What kind of grade yield did we get there?” versus “What did we get from that other part of the forest?” That’s what I think is on the horizon.

How does the industry normally bring in new technologies?

Different kinds of companies introduce them differently. The big corporations, like International Paper, either eliminated their forestry totally or, like Weyerhaeuser, moved to a REIT (real estate investment trust), a totally different business model. There’s one- or two-mill family operations — no forestry. That suggests to me that they wouldn’t necessarily be thinking about monitoring in the forests or about actually the quality of the fiber. There are some large regional operations that are still integrated.

The first thing that they’re all going to look for is either cost savings or increased efficiency, especially in the processing side. With sensors, for example, they’re going to first think about how to decrease the costs either in forestry or in the mill or how to increase the fiber yield. That suggests to me that they wouldn’t necessarily be thinking about monitoring in the forests or about actually assessing the quality of the fiber.

It is such a fragmented industry. You cannot be competitive as a sawmill in this country without advanced technology. The cost of the raw material for a sawmill is about 70% of your cost of production, so you have to make darn certain you get every piece you can out of that thing because the margins are so low. That’s what’s driving their investment in innovation for optimization and scanning systems.

One of the challenges of connecting the Internet-of-Things approach to the timber resource itself is figuring out who benefits. Is it going to be the mill? Will the mills pay more for the logs if they get the right logs because they know now which specific part of the forest will give them better quality wood? Probably not. That’s an implementation challenge.

How do you think you would actually implement an Internet of Trees? Would you need to have every tree covered?

It’s going to be very dependent upon the forest. There’s a koa forest in Hawaii where the company managing it uses RFID tags on each and every tree. Those kinds of tags are also being used in tropical forests, often to eliminate illegal logging, by tracking when something is moving that shouldn’t have been. Koa is typically used for very high-end products, so that would be one end of the spectrum. When it comes to something more industrial, like plantation forestry in Mississippi, then I think it’s going to be monitoring an area of forest rather than an individual tree. There’s just not enough value there to warrant individual monitoring.

You’ve said that you could see the Internet of Things for forest products being used in particle board or doors and windows and other household objects. How far away is that from happening?

There’s a company in South Carolina that’s developed an RFID system where they can basically have an RFID tag on every utility pole. They can track the history of what’s been done to the pole — whether there’s vegetation growing on it, whether it’s been repaired or refurbished somehow. With the history of that pole over time, they essentially have an inventory system. Right now, tags are being added after the fact, but I don’t think there’s any reason it couldn’t be added at any stage after the treatment process.

Putting sensors in doors and windows and furniture is pretty advanced. Underlayment — in-home moisture sensing in floors — was just totally pie-in-the-sky thinking. I have no evidence that anybody’s even thought about that before, let alone pursued it. But that’s the kind of thing I really wish every homeowner had, so that they wouldn’t be tearing up floors to find out whether things are actually okay or talking about a demolition and reconstruction because the floor is already too damaged to renovate.

The biggest topic right now in wood products innovation is cross-laminated timber (CLT). Think about high-rise structures, 30-story structures, where all the structural material is wood. This cross-laminated timber is like plywood on steroids. The challenge, of course, is if it gets wet, and stays wet, you’ve got a problem. In-place monitoring of these wood structural components would be ideal, because you could see how they are being affected by changes in the environment and by small leaks and whether or not they actually do dry out.

How prevalent is the use of analytics in the forestry industry?

On the forestry side, I think that there’s pretty effective use of big data. On the mill side, there’s a huge amount of scanning that goes on, and typically that information is used at one particular place in the mill and it doesn’t extend beyond that. For example, where the log is first broken down into a few pieces, it’s scanned so that it can be positioned to maximize yield. Right now, that information typically doesn’t flow to the next machine sensor, so there’s a huge opportunity there to be better networked, to make better use of that data. I would say that currently almost all of the operations are really poorly placed to do that, and I don’t think the industry has the expertise and maybe not even the computing power to do it effectively.

What might the Internet of Things mean for the forestry industry?

We have real challenges in the sector with integration of supply chain. Part of that’s a people factor; part of it’s a technological factor. When you start getting the technology in place, where you really have knowledge about what’s happening at every step along the way, it becomes a more efficient system, and, in theory, the supply chain would be more competitive in the United States than in other parts of the world. This could bring more manufacturing back to the U.S. A lot of the furniture manufacturing has gone to China, but the costs there are increasing and now those manufacturing operations are moving to places like Vietnam and some are being re-sourced back to the United States. Maybe the Internet of Things leads to a more competitive forest-products industry and maybe to more manufacturing in the U.S.

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