RFID technology has proven itself useful for inventory and supply chain tracking in all kinds of industries, from groceries to medical devices and more. Less well known is that it can be applied in the forestry and wood products industries as well. However, its adoption in those industries has not been as rapid as in other, more “indoors-y” industries. There are several reason for this, but none of them are insurmountable.
Why RFID in Forestry?
RFID tagging can be used to mark individual trees during the growth cycle and individual logs after harvesting. It’s a fair question to ask why the ability to individually identify trees or logs is needed in the first place—if you’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen them all, right? It turns out there are several good reasons for this level of tracking in the forestry and wood-products supply chain:
- Forest inventory management: By uniquely identifying trees as seedlings, it’s easier for loggers to know how many trees they have under management and where each one is in its growth cycle. This enables loggers to cut down the right trees at the right time, thereby ensuring the quality of the product sent to the sawmill and increasing the sustainability of the forest.
- Rich information in a durable package: An RFID tag can store a wealth of information about the tree or log, including its species, when it was planted, where it was planted, and more. And, unlike a barcode on a printed label, an RFID tag can be made sufficiently durable to withstand the elements over the many years that it will be needed before the tree is harvested.
- Prevention of information loss through the supply chain: Traditionally, felled trees undergo some processing, grading, and measurement before delivery to the sawmill for sorting and further processing. This information usually does not accompany each log, so the sawmill has to re-measure and re-grade the logs in the sorting process, and perhaps again after further processing. By RFID tagging of individual logs, the measurement data can be loaded to a database accessible by entities downstream in the supply chain, thereby reducing processing overhead.
Unlike a warehouse or factory setting, forestry presents a unique set of challenges to the use of RFID technology:
- Durability during processing: An RFID tag must be able to withstand rough handling over the process of felling, branch removal, transport, debarking, and other process steps.
- Readability in a forest setting: In a warehouse, an RFID tag is usually in line-of-sight and at close range with the reader device. In a forest, the distance is necessarily longer, and the signal can be degraded by the wood’s density and moisture content, among other factors.
- Impact on product quality: The materials used in the RFID tag and the method of attaching it to the tree or logs must not degrade the wood quality or contaminate any downstream products.
And of course, implementing and using an RFID system should not slow down the production process or increase costs.
Fortunately, the timber industry is working with RFID providers on creative solutions to these challenges. Among these are RFID tags that can be implanted in the end of a log, protecting it from rough handling; and RFID tags made from biodegradable materials that will not harm the quality of downstream products such as boards and chips—all while keeping a close eye on costs.
RFID appears to have a bright future ahead in the forestry industry and Mobile Mentor is excited to be a part of it.