For most people, the term “forestry” does not evoke thought of computers, data centers, and high-tech gadgetry; rather, images of chain saws, bulldozers, and logging trucks are more likely to come to mind. A closer look, however, reveals that the forestry industry has been adopting technological innovations for many years. For example:
- Individual trees are now marked and tracked from planting to harvesting. This enables precision planting and selective felling to ensure the right trees are harvested at the right time to meet customer demand.
- Advances in equipment automation enable loggers to operate in rough-terrain areas that could not be safely reached with manually operated equipment.
- The use of drones enables forestry firms to monitor their assets more efficiently and with increased granularity, down to individual trees.
- More recently, the forestry industry has seen in increase in the use of mobile apps, such as eDocketing solutions, to replace the cumbersome and error-prone paper docketing systems of the past.
The changes have been gradual, but by and large the systems and technologies in use are making forestry businesses more efficient and more profitable.
Despite these gains, the adoption of technology can have downsides. Technology that is poorly designed or applied haphazardly, without a holistic view of the enterprise or a clear understanding of the needs of the users on the ground, can make forestry business processes less efficient, not more.
System inefficiencies plague many industries, and forestry is no exception. The purpose of this article is to describe ways in which technology systems can cause inefficiencies, the financial impacts of those inefficiencies, and some approaches to dealing with them.
Systems and Applications in the Forestry Industry
The business of forestry is not too different from that of other manufacturing industries. Foresters start with raw materials, go through a production cycle, and deliver finished goods to customers. Along the way, there is equipment to be acquired and maintained, labor to be trained and allocated, and marketing to be done. The difference is that the factory is almost completely outdoors, at the mercy of the environment and the elements, and production cycles are measured in years or decades, in stark contrast to days or even hours for other manufacturing industries.
As in most industries, the forestry industry computerized most of its back-office functions years ago. Unlike other manufacturing industries, forestry does not lend itself well to integrating its manufacturing operations with the back-office functions. In large part, this lag has resulted from the special challenges inherent in the forestry industry, such as poor or nonexistent connectivity in most forest locations and a lack of rugged devices that can stand up to rough handling and harsh environments. Only recently has technology evolved to a point where it can be used reliably in a forestry setting, where off-line operations, due to little or no coverage, is the norm.
As a result, forestry is a relative newcomer to integrated data systems, and thus has less experience and organizational maturity in the use of these tools. There are some innovative examples of technology being applied in areas of the forestry industry that have seen few advances since the advent of the chain saw:
- Inventory tracking: Where once the inventory of a forest was measured as an estimate of trees per unit area, individual trees can now be tracked from seedlings planted in the ground to logs delivered to the sawmill.
- Tree health monitoring: Sensors coupled with efficient transmitters can monitor and report the health conditions of trees, along with other environmental parameters such as rainfall, temperature, and soil conditions.
- Grading: Using devices attached to individual logs, foresters can track the grading and sorting of individual logs, thereby eliminating the need for the second round of grading often conducted at the sawmill. Forestry companies can therefore obtain the right price for each log.
- Resource planning: Systems can use data from the field as inputs to determine what to cut and when to cut it, along with scheduling labor and equipment. The result is more efficient allocation of labor and equipment, possibly reducing the amount of both needed to do the same amount of logging.
- Equipment tracking: Systems can track equipment through its full lifecycle, from acquisition through depreciation and to disposal, including maintenance scheduling and recordkeeping.
Demand forecasting: Because of the long forestry production cycle, demand forecasting is a bit of a challenge. It’s difficult to predict what the demand for particular forestry products will be 20 or 30 years out, or what yield will be realized per seedling or acre planted—especially in the modern era, where new building materials can perform as well as or better than wood and where tree yields can be affected by climate change. However, with good data, some level of predictive analytics can be applied to forecasting and planning.
Sources of System Inefficiencies and Their Impacts in Forestry Businesses
Here are some ways that data and technological systems can introduce inefficiencies in forestry processes, and how they can affect the bottom line:
- Use of disparate systems that aren’t integrated: As with any business, having different systems that don’t “talk” to each other results in data siloes that don’t agree. A spreadsheet with a list of drivers, trucks and trailers can be hard to reconcile with a paper-based docket system that relies on that spreadsheet. This is a simple but common example that requires a person to do a lot of admin work in the background to keep the business operating. Lacking a single version of the truth makes it difficult to run a business, because so much time is wasted in dealing with discrepancies.
- Difficulty in (or excessive) data entry: All modern businesses run on data, but a system that makes it difficult for users to enter data, or a system that requires too much data entry, is a system that will not be used. If a driver needs to enter a username / password combination, use two hands to use their device and enter mundane details like forest compartment, date, time and name – then it is likely the task will be postponed.
- Questionable data accuracy: A direct result of the preceding point is that the accuracy of the data diminishes rapidly over time; if users wait until the end of a job to enter all the data, they might forget things, or not remember them accurately. The ultimate result is that the business issues invoices late, or inaccurate invoices, because they were relying on bad data.
- Delays in getting data from the field: Even if users enter data faithfully, most logging locations are far from reliable internet connections. Data collected in the field might not be loaded to the system until the end of the day when the truck drives into cellular coverage. A system that assumes that data will be provided in real time is going to provide inaccurate metrics, which could result in bad decisions.
Approaches to Improvement
Most of the recommendations for addressing inefficiencies in forestry business systems are applicable to any business, although some focus on the unique challenges of the forestry industry. Among the former:
- Eliminate offline systems and increase integration: By eliminating offline data siloes and operating the business with online data sources, you can eliminate the waste associated with reconciling and dealing with conflicts and inconsistencies in data from different systems. Putting spreadsheets online, or replacing them with a database, is a good start as that means various stakeholders can read from and write to the database and maintain a single source of truth.
- Synchronize demand planning, equipment maintenance, and resource planning activities: Among the worst situations in forestry (or any manufacturing business) is to have skilled workers standing around idle because a vital piece of equipment is down for scheduled maintenance. Likewise, having valuable assets like logging trucks parked in the yard due to a driver shortage is a source of great inefficiency. Among the benefits of and integrated ecosystem is better coordination between the resource scheduling, critical assets and maintenance scheduling activities.
To address forestry-specific issues, systems must be designed to account for the peculiarities of the forestry business environment, such as its long production cycles and remote locations in harsh environments. Some ideas include:
- Simplify data entry: A well-designed mobile app can simplify and automate the majority of data capture. Login can be achieved with a thumb print or face scan so username and password is not required. Geo-fencing can be used to pre-select the relevant forestry compartment so minimize pick-lists. Time, date and location can be auto-populated. New dockets can be created based on the last one completed. As a result, the mobile forester actually needs to enter very little data and should be able to complete a routine task in one minute, on one screen, in one hand, with one thumb and one eye. Learn more about the ONESIE concept here.
The application of technology in forestry business processes must be carefully considered, planned, and implemented, with a clear understanding of the costs, benefits, and interactions with other systems. Among the most important considerations is how mobile devices will be used in the forest. Devices and processes that add to users’ tasks without any perceived benefit (that is, without making their work easier or more productive) will not be used correctly, and may not be used at all. The business thus will see no return on its technology investment. Therefore, one of the best ways to maximize the chances of success is to seek the active involvement of the users on the ground during all phases of a technology implementation project.
At Mobile Mentor, we have been applying this principle for many years to help the forestry industry use mobile technology to streamline their operations. We are keenly aware of the special challenges that impact the forestry industry and have designed our forestry mobile solutions accordingly. For example, our eDocketing system, developed for Forestry Corp. NSW, eliminates the paperwork for loggers and haulers and makes the process as error-proof as possible, all while accommodating the spotty-to-nonexistent connectivity conditions of the forest environment.
We all know that the future of forestry involves more sensors, autonomous vehicles and more mobility, and we stand ready to help the forestry industry extract maximum value from these technologies.