A new project from the Digital Technology Supercluster offers hope for the future—through greater connectivity

This article was originally published in our April issue, and written before the COVID-19 pandemic came to Canada. 

Sometimes when you’re looking for the root of a problem, the culprit is clear. With B.C.’s forestry sector, rotten roots could be seen everywhere in 2019, from high stumpage rates and low timber prices to limited log supply (brought on by pine beetles and forest fires), U.S. tariffs (brought on by Donald Trump) and, oh yes, a handful of mill strikes and shutdowns. So far in 2020, things don’t look much healthier.

Forestry is a cyclical industry, so there’s reason to believe the numbers will eventually turn around. But there’s also a pressing need to find efficiencies if Canadian forestry is to enjoy a sustainable future. This is particularly critical in B.C., where the sector accounts for almost a third of the province’s exports and more than 50,000 of its jobs.

One man who’s made efficiency his life’s work is Jean-François Gingras. Gingras runs the forest operations division at FPInnovations, an industry-supported organization that, through R&D laboratories in Montreal and Vancouver, is finding ways to make Canada’s forestry companies more viable in the face of cut-rate global competition. “My job is looking at the upstream part of the value chain—everything from the forest to the mills,” says Montreal-based Gingras, who has been with FPInnovations and its predecessor, the Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada, since 1986.

FPInnovations is one of five partners—along with B.C.’s Canfor and TimberWest, UBC’s faculty of forestry and Ottawa-based Lim Geomatics—teaming up to form one of the federal government’s Digital Technology Supercluster initiatives. Their Forest Machine Connectivity project, announced last spring, will seek ways to digitally transform and modernize the way timber is harvested, using an industrial Internet of Things platform and network of smart devices.

In this vision of the future—what Gingras labels “Forestry 4.0”—companies can connect all of their production and decision centres in real time, allowing an operator to react almost immediately to changing harvest, mill or market conditions. “It’s really about tightening up that lag time between what the customer wants and what your production facility can deliver,” he says.

The challenge for operators, Gingras notes, is the scattered and nomadic nature of their work. “In forestry, machines are moving over the landscape all of the time, so you can’t just plug a cell tower in the middle of nowhere and say you’ll be connecting all of your machines. Because those machines, the following week, may be 50 kilometres in another direction.”

The Holy Grail, as far as connectivity goes, is being able to provide an Internet linkage between machines—“either the machines talking between one another, or between the mills and the decision centres doing the planning and operational monitoring.” Already, FPInnovations has developed a proprietary telematics tool called FPDat that can be added to an existing forest machine to monitor activity in the field—tracking positions, production levels and number of hours worked. FPInnovations also provides a communications link to clients, connecting each machine with a data host on the web.

Transmitting spatial data is costly, especially from remote areas of B.C., so a lot of the work FPInnovations is doing concerns finding ways to compress data before sending it—and searching for alternatives to the low-bandwidth Iridium satellites it currently employs. Gingras points to satellite constellations being developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX (which operate at a lower orbit) as a possible future solution.

For now, as foresters face continued financial hardship, spending money on new monitoring systems or communications links remains a tough sell, Gingras admits: “These companies are looking at every element of their cost structure and trying to keep their head above water.” Still, he hopes that as work progresses on Forestry 4.0, the case for investing in technology will become clear. And that industry will be able to see the forest once again—and not just the trees.

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Source: abacus data, BC Chamber of Commerce and C3 Alliance Corp. Totals do not add up to 100 due to rounding