Project Success Stories - Tracking wood from forest to furniture
If a tree is felled in the forest, will it make into a finished wood product? This variation on the common philosophical riddle is a question that the industry needs to ponder. At present the answer is uncertain, as around 10 % of the wood that is felled is wasted. This translates to a volume of 25 million m3 of wood and a cost of EUR 5 billion each year across Europe. 'This is a huge waste of money and resources,' says Dr Richard Uusijärvi from the wood technology department of the SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden. 'Europe is a very big exporter of wood, accounting for 25 to 30 % of all wood worldwide.' The problem, he explains, is that manufacturers do not take into consideration the quality of wood before it goes into sawmills. 'They put all wood in there and decide which to use afterwards. In many cases the wood is not the correct quality and they get rid of it.' Dr Uusijärvi was co-ordinator of the Indisputable Key ('Traceability for wood industry competitiveness digital forestry chain') project, a recently-finished collaborative research effort looking into how to improve this situation using advanced information technology. 'We wanted to create a system that could automatically trace wood throughout the production chain on a large scale,' he says. The system uses electronic tagging to enable logs to carry their history with them on the path from the forest to sawmill and wood printing technology on boards to final wood product. 'The result is that trees that are not suitable to be sawn will not end up in the sawmill. The properties of the timber will be exploited to minimise waste,' continues Dr Uusijärvi. 'This means increased product quality at a lower environmental cost.' Introducing tracking The project developed a system based on individual associated data (IAD). It means that when the tree is felled and cut up into logs, each log is marked electronically with a unique code linking it to a database storing information such as the size of the log, felling location and time of felling. This data about the tree and its quality can then be used in the forest and throughout the wood production chain for important decision-making, suggests Dr Uusijärvi. Instruments in the transport vehicles and processing machines can use this data to ensure wood of the correct quality is delivered where it is needed. The technology improves logistics and prevents the mixing of different quality logs. The project team developed two elements in order to tag the logs - a microchip transponder that is embedded in the wood and an ink-based marking system. These elements are added as the trees are felled and further information is inputted as the logs travel through the production chain. The researchers also developed the supporting technologies for the system, including an automatic transponder applicator (ATA) to insert the tags into the wood; an automatic sword printer (LogDots) to apply the ink, as well as the supporting systems and software to read them. An important feature of the system, stresses Dr Uusijärvi, is that it refines itself. 'Data is collected as wood goes through the system. This means that the wood that was the correct quality for a given use is noted, enabling better decisions the next time,' he says. 'It minimises the wood needed for specific uses.' Viability The project built on an earlier EU-funded effort. 'The Lineset project had enabled us to understand that such a system of traceability would be possible and it explored the benefits it could bring for the industry,' says Dr Uusijärvi. 'But we needed to create a new system to make it practical at a commercial level.' 'We worked on efficiently adapting available communications and data technology to the market,' he adds. A key technological development was to use ultra-high frequency RFID (radio frequency identification) transponders. 'These had never been used before with wood. We were able to demonstrate that they were viable at an industrial level,' says Dr Uusijärvi. Some 30 000 transponders were produced for the project. 'We had them produced in an injection moulding process,' he says. The transponders were tested at a number of sites, from logs in the forest to sawmills and plywood and pole manufacturers in Finland, France, Norway and Sweden. 'We achieved what we set out to do,' he adds. 'We showed that is possible to produce the transponder on a large-scale. We have shown that the IAD works and we tested the system in practice over a long period of time.' Next steps However, more development of the technologies is needed before they can be commercially viable. 'We need to minimise the costs and size of the transponders,' says Dr Uusijärvi. The current cost in large quantities is about 30 cents per transponder. 'Though this could still be slightly reduced, it is still too high,' he continues. 'To get the industry to adopt the system it would need to be around 3 cents but this requires a continuous manufacturing process instead of the present batch process. Another important factor is to reduce the unit size. 'We need a continuous process that can insert the transponders instantaneously as the logs are cut,' says Dr Uusijärvi. 'This is not possible with the size of the current units and the forces needed to put them in the logs. Today it takes some seconds extra, which is too long.' However, he remains optimistic that it would be possible to half the dimensions of the unit, which would enable this breakthrough. 'We have some good ideas on how to do it. This would reduce the volume by a factor of 10 and all forces would be much less,' he says. Another element that needs to be developed in follow-up activities is to improve the visibility of the ink. His team is now in 'early-stage' negotiations to take forward the work from the project in a subsequent collaborative research effort. 'Many of the partners are keen to continue working together,' he confirms. Twenty-eight partners from five countries participated in the three-year project which ended in March 2010. It had an original budget of EUR 12.6 million, which was finalised at EUR 13.5 million, of which EUR 7.7 million came from the EU's Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) for research. Indisputable Key demonstrated the technologies that can bring much greater traceability into the wood chain. With managing natural resources efficiently an issue for many sectors, the challenge is now on to make the system a commercial reality.