Technology takes forestry to the next level
Use technology to work smart, improve productivity, health and safety, and take the donkey work out of those repetitive, mindless tasks. But most important of all, don’t lose touch with your customers along the way. This was the underlying message that emerged from two days of presentations at the Focus on Forestry conference held in White River in mid-April.
The tone for the conference was set by guest speaker Arthur Goldstuck of World Wide Worx, who tracks internet and mobile technology trends and promotes the use of technology to improve productivity.
He presented a case study of Blockbuster, an American start-up which pounced on the video rental market back in the 1980s, establishing a chain of stores around the world that took advantage of this new technology, and saw its revenue leap-frog in a dizzy climb to the top of the food chain.
One small problem was that Blockbuster customers were quick to rent videos, but slow to return them.
This was impacting their stores’ ability to rent out more videos. So the bosses at Blockbuster came up with a brilliant solution: to impose hefty fines on customers for late returns.
Soon, the revenue generated from late returns outpaced the revenue from rentals, and the Blockbuster bosses were smiling all the way to the bank. But their business model was based on punishing their customers, an approach that would come back to bite them hard.
In 2000 Reed Hastings, founder of a small start-up called Netflix, met with the Blockbuster CEO to propose a partnership. Netflix would offer Blockbuster videos online through a subscription service (subscribers could take out a video, keep it for as long as they liked, and when they returned it get a new video to watch), and Blockbuster would promote Netflix through its retail stores.
Hastings’ proposal was rejected out of hand.
Eventually Blockbuster CEO John Antioco saw the writing on the wall. Competition from online businesses such as Netflix was hotting up, so he came up with a plan to discontinue the late return fees that were angering his customers, and build an online platform.
But he was fired by the board before he could implement these changes and the newly installed CEO went back to the basic ‘punish the bastards’ Blockbuster business model.
Bad move! Blockbuster went bankrupt in 2010. Today Netflix is worth around $160 billion.
This may not be forestry, but the fundamental lessons from the Blockbuster/Netflix case study apply to any business:-
1. Build customer satisfaction into your business culture. TOP PRIORITY – HAPPY CUSTOMERS.
2. Use technology, adapt and move with it, innovate and use it to improve productivity, reach and service.
3. Competition promotes healthy business.
Keeping abreast of the technology curve is so crucial in today’s world where change is speeding up. You have to maximise your opportunities and avoid blind alleys as Blockbuster’s video rental journey turned out to be. Sometimes these occur in unexpected places. Digital technology may have reduced demand for magazine grade paper, but the demand for wrapping and packaging papers continues to grow. Even digital devices like cell phones need to be packaged.
Meanwhile companies like Sappi have focused on the chemical cellulose market which feeds into many sectors including clothing, but they’re also developing new technologies to produce biomaterials and biochemicals that give them a variety of markets to pursue.
Silviculture stuck in the past
Silviculture in South Africa has been one of those forestry operations that got stuck in the past for decades. Even as harvesting operations began to modernise and mechanise from 2000, silvics remained stuck in old ways.
But that is all changing as an array of new technology is being unleashed upon the forestry landscape. Jaap Steenkamp of Novelquip Forestry described the use of telematics in planting machines, which transfers critical info from site to the management office. The location of every tree is logged on a GPS system, paving the way for more precise and efficient operations through the full cycle of tending, harvesting, logistics and re-establishment.
Dutliff Smith explained how Sappi’s approach to managing small-scale and community growers from whom they purchase timber has been transformed with the development of an app that operates off a cell phone and captures key data logged in the field by foresters, growers and contractors. It captures info about the growers, seedling deliveries and procurement, harvest yields and sales, generates job instructions, checklists, orders, GIS maps of tree plots, and integrates seamlessly with Sappi’s back office management systems.
Dutliff said that Sappi Khulisa is not a CSI project – it’s a vital and integral part of Sappi’s business geared to create “shared value”. The app is part and parcel of this empowerment process that includes growers and contractors, so it talks to the whole value chain.
Speaker after speaker described the value of using mobile devices like cell phones and tablets to capture info, receive job instructions, audit against checklists, send invoices and payment instructions. Meanwhile the use of drones, infra-red and LiDAR is transforming the world of mapping and monitoring growing crops, whether they are trees, orchards, vineyards or maize.
Internet of things
The internet of things is another technology frontier taking forestry by storm. Sensors, cameras and other electronic devices attached to equipment and vehicles communicate and interact over the internet and can be remotely managed and controlled. This is already common in timber transport where advanced telematics has transformed fleet, depot and wood yard management.
In-cab cameras, load measuring equipment, sensors monitoring driver and engine performance plus on-board computers that integrate and makes sense of all this information, has provided fleet managers with the tools to manage in real-time via cell phone, tablet or desktop.
This technology is also being used to track and monitor motor-manual machines like chainsaws, blowers, mowers and pruners etc. Johan Kruger of Husqvarna says the Swedish manufacturer has developed Husqvarna Fleet Services, a cloud-based system which tracks motor-manual equipment providing info about location, usage and when it’s time to service and/or replace the machine.
The technology is based on a small Bluetooth sensor that is attached to any machine that uses electricity and uploads relevant info to the cloud where it can be monitored in real-time.
Jurgens Kritzinger of Montigny, which manages 80 000 ha of pine in Swaziland, said they have developed a new strategy for silviculture operations at Usutu. This is based on a comprehensive system that micro-manages every activity from a control room which issues detailed job instructions, sets time lines and does quality checks using satellite imagery and drone footage. He said that this system “takes the thinking out of forestry” so that foresters on the ground follow instructions. No guess-work, no room for error.
Steep slope harvesting
Eric Krume of Summit Attachment and Machinery in USA provided a fascinating look at the world of steep slope logging in the Pacific north west. His team modifies equipment which is tethered and lowered down impossibly steep slopes to cut and extract timber, producing more volume at lower cost and improving safety by removing people – including chokers - from the slope.
Danie Jacobs, harvesting and logistics manager at York, described the company’s scientific approach to breeding, planting and tending trees to produce timber with the qualities and properties that their mills require. This goes beyond traditional site species matching to ensure the right chemistry as well. Specific silviculture regimes are applied for each species on different sites.
He says York does row thinning as well as highly selective thinning, removing only poor trees, which improves overall stand quality. They are currently doing trials with a small, Swedish manufactured Malwa forwarder for first thinnings. This wheeled machine is light on its feet and just 1.95 metres wide with a six meter reach on the boom, ideal for selective thinning.
Every log harvested is coded and tagged and supplied according to its specs to one of York’s five processing plants.
Group certification solution
Michal Brink of CMO provided info on the development of a software programme that provides a very simple risk-based solution for group certification. This system is currently being developed in Namibia where biomass is being harvested from clearing indigenous bush encroachment to produce charcoal and other products. Michal says there are 23 million ha of encroached land in Namibia with 180 million tons of biomass waiting to be harvested.
The challenge is to certify these operations. Michal says the market is hungry for more legal compliance, but the certification system needs to be intuitive and simple otherwise it won’t work.
A plantation forestry module based on this system will be rolled out in South Africa soon. It will be open for all farms to join as independent members, said Michal.
Keith Little of NMU provided info on trials he has been conducting to find an alternative to Paraquat for the purpose of creating tracer lines for burning firebreaks. Paraquat is highly effective but is toxic to humans and is not endorsed by FSC (except under special derogation). Keith reported encouraging results from Scythe, an organic herbicide which works as well as Paraquat but requires two passes to be effective.
Foresters around the country will watch the progress of these trials with interest in an effort to find an acceptable replacement for Paraquat.
An interesting study by Roland Wenhold of Stellenbosch University looked at the learning curve that trainee operators go through on simulator and on-machine experience to reach optimum proficiency. The study provided insights into the selection of harvester operators for Ponsse machines, starting with psychometric testing.
He said you can expect an overall improvement in operator productivity of 119% over 12 months.
Willem Fourie of Form Ghana provided info on their integrated community fire management programme.
He said that hot desert winds blow across the forests in Ghana creating extreme fire risk. They get buy-in from the local chief, and then help local farmers to plant trees on their land, and then provide comprehensive training to help them protect their own trees from fire.
“Our long term aim is to protect our own forests. The only way to do this is to get the community on board,” he said.
After the conference it was on to the field day which was held on an MTO Lowveld plantation just outside White River. The site was extremely well prepared with a circular route along which different equipment and service providers displayed and demo’d their wares.
*First published in SA Forestry magazine, May 2019