Cutting-edge production techniques and innovative design are opening new opportunities for New Zealand’s forestry sector and for Wood Engineering Technology that means converting second-rate, low-value logs – destined for woodchips – into quality timber.
At a glance
The strong scent of pine you get as you pass by logging depots at our major ports is one of the more obvious signs of our booming export industry for radiata pine logs.
Around seven per cent of our land area is covered in forest logging plantations, which produced exports in the form of raw logs and milled timber worth $6.4 billion last year. Nearly half of it went to China.
Our top-quality pine is highly valued, but it represents only a fraction of exports. The rest is considered second-rate and sent as logs for use in packaging or reduced to woodchip or paper. What if you could find a way to turn that exported deadwood into valuable building materials for the domestic market?
That’s exactly the goal of Auckland and Gisborne-based Wood Engineering Technology (WET) which, after 15 years of R&D, has mastered how to do it using a data-driven end-to-end automation process. WET has a patented method of creating glue-laminated timber, or ‘glulam’, which consists of pieces of wood stuck together with a moisture-resistant adhesive.
The approach and technology underpinning WET’s innovation fit under the broad umbrella of “Industry 4.0”, which uses interconnected sensors, artificial intelligence and robotics to digitise manufacturing for greater productivity and better products.
WET’s industrial process exploits the variability within each log as well as the grade, or quality of the log, which is broken down and then reengineered as lumber.
It is the optimisation of the disassembly and reassembly process that gives WET its innovation edge.
“Our process allows a lower grade log from radiata pine plantations to be manufactured efficiently into engineered wood products,” says WET’s Chief Executive Officer, Shaun Bosson.
“We want to change the way we build mid-rise and even high-rise buildings by using a lot more timber, which after events like the Christchurch quakes, and a strong desire for more efficient and sustainable buildings there is a lot more appetite for.”
Long-term commitment to R&D
Years of experimentation, in conjunction with forest research institute Scion, involved breaking down the “ugliest” logs to analyse their characteristics. WET was able to reconstitute pieces of wood to form durable beams that performed to tight building specifications.
Wood is in vogue again for commercial building construction because it is more sustainable to produce, is five times lighter than concrete so offers more options for engineers and it can be as strong and durable as concrete and steel beams.
“Once we proved we could make the product, our focus moved to how we could make it in an automated fashion,” says Bosson, who joined WET in 2015 and brought expertise in Industry 4.0 manufacturing to the company.
The same year, WET formed a $9.4 million joint venture with Gisborne’s Eastland Community Trust to develop an intelligent processing plant. Up to this point the beams were being glued and clamped together in separate machines without full automation.
Before settling on any technology for the plant, Bosson and colleagues mapped out every part of the manufacturing process so they could design a system that would capture data and produce insights about the plant’s operation.
The result? Intelligent systems that might be more typically associated with automobile or electronics factories than with lumber mills. The plant is equipped with laser sensors, cameras and mechanical stress-testing devices to analyse the quality of the wood and monitor it as it passes through the different phases of production.
Data underpins everything
A Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system gathers data from these devices to allow monitoring of the entire plant. The handling of the logs themselves has been completely automated, says Bosson.
“Logs go in one end and finished pieces of serialised and fully tested lumber come out the other without anyone having to touch them.”
The automation and supply chain innovation WET has achieved is key to making the beams economically viable to produce. WET began selling them earlier this year [April 2019] and is set to expand its demonstration plant and begin building a second plant on its Gisborne site, which will give it the capacity to produce 40,000 cubic metres of engineered lumber each year, enough to build over 1500 homes. Plans for further plants are also in the pipeline.
R&D is still integral to the business. WET has experimented with young logs from 12 – 14-year-old trees that are culled from forests to thin them out and give the other trees room to grow. Normally the thinnings are pulped and used for medium-density fibreboard (MDF) or paper.
“We took some of those logs and processed them through our plant and produced a structural grade of 10 which for New Zealand is very high,” says Bosson.
“That starts to change the economics of forestry where, rather than having to wait 30 years for your trees to grow, you can change your harvesting rotation and get a lot more value from the forest,” he adds.
A showcase of Industry 4.0 principles
Callaghan Innovation’s Team Leader Electrical Engineering, Ivo Gorny, recently completed an assessment of the WET plant in Gisborne.
“The factory is an outstanding example of an Industry 4.0 installation in New Zealand, proving the economic and technical advantages of this approach, he says.
“The highly competitive timber produced has a higher, well-defined quality than conventional products, despite being made of lower grade timber, and for each piece production data are available.”
WET is now in capital-raising mode with the aim of opening processing plants in other forestry regions and its ultimate goal is to export its wood products.
Bosson said Callaghan Innovation’s support, in the form of a Growth Grant, a Student Grant which allowed WET to employ a masters student, and a software health check through the Build for Speed programme, had been integral to the company’s success.
“They've seen the potential in what we are doing and wanted to support us at a critical time in the business as we were getting off the ground,” he says.
WET’s industry 4.0 journey continued, with R&D and continuous improvement central to its philosophy.
“We consider ourselves a technology business, not a wood processor. We try not to hit things with a hammer.”
In October Bosson will travel to Singapore as part of a Callaghan Innovation-led delegation of twenty companies attending Industrial Transformation Asia-Pacific, one of the region’s leading conferences focused on Industry 4.0.
Updated: 4 July 2022