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Logs sit on a logging truck

New research helps forest industry integrate technology into business management

Technology has found its way into almost every aspect of industry—it can decrease costs, increase efficiencies and even allow a birds-eye view of the entire operation.

While these advances have also had a profound effect on forestry and the forest products industry, many forest business owners have yet to take advantage of new technologies to improve the management of their business. State-of-the-art sawmills produce lumber faster and with less waste, and modern logging equipment has made timber harvesting safer and more productive than ever before. Yet many professionals who buy, harvest and transport trees continue to run their business the way they were taught—often by family members before them.

Now, a slate of new projects undertaken by forestry students at the University of Georgia aims to connect technology to the forest industry in innovative ways. Under the direction of Chad Bolding, professor and Langdale Chair in Forest Business at the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, these projects will look at ways loggers and timber buyers can work more efficiently. Along with Joe Conrad, associate professor of forest operations, their team is even investigating the use of artificial intelligence to assess the amount of wood that is on a truck before it is delivered to a mill.

“The possibilities of incorporating technology into business management are endless,” said Bolding. “It’s an exciting time to work in the industry as we learn how to use cellphones, apps, and data to make real-time decisions. Too often, forest business owners focus on daily viability and have not sought opportunities to innovate.  We are excited to serve the industry by testing new technologies that can improve efficiency and profitability.”

That’s where Warnell and its team of researchers can step in and help. Ideally, the work will eventually help small business owners across the Southeast and the country—timber buyers, foresters and loggers who have yet to adopt the use of technology to manage operations.

Finding efficiencies

Two projects now in development can help logging operations work more efficiently. One involves testing new logistics software that timber buyers and loggers can use to track scale tickets and inventory in real time. Bolding, Conrad and research coordinator Sarah Kinz are researching users and non-users of the software to evaluate its effectiveness and how its data can be useful for owners. 

“We’re looking for ways that we can capitalize on data management,” added Bolding, “because in our business, real-time data is rarely used for decision making.”

A second project involves partnering with an international logistics company that has developed software for logging businesses to manage inventory, wood flow and optimize transportation to mills. Bolding and his team have identified a medium-sized logging company in Georgia to conduct a pilot study of the software solution. By installing the custom system on trucks and logging machines, research partners will be able to use a dashboard to see and manage real-time information. This will allow the business owner to match inventory with transportation capacity.

The result? Maximized trucking efficiency and reduced transportation costs.

“Without access to real-time data, business owners spend an incredible amount of time making phone calls, sending text messages and putting out ‘fires,’” said Bolding. Using the software allows owners to monitor a dashboard via app or personal computer, minimizing the need for time-consuming and often unnecessary communication.

The researchers will analyze the pilot study data to propose interventions that the business owner can use to improve efficiency. During the six-month trial, the team will go through this process several times—ideally, seeing continuous improvement in business operations.

“We will track how the software influences production, profitability, truckloads per week, loaded miles, etc.,” he said. “I’m really excited about that—it’s a great example of purposely using data to make a business run more efficiently.”

Working with Conrad, the research team will also analyze the consistency in log truck payloads—another way data can help the industry work more efficiently. 

This is because in Georgia, the gross weight limit for log trucks is 84,000 pounds. During the pandemic, to counter supply chain issues, the state granted temporary permits allowing loaded trucks to weigh 95,000 pounds. This temporary permit has now been in place for almost three years, but while the state mulls making a permanent weight increase, it also wants information on whether the increase has caused additional crashes. “So, the data is available to us and we’re looking at crash rates prior to the special-use permits and after the permits,” said Bolding. 

Tree A.I.

Another project that could help loggers and landowners involves the use of artificial intelligence. 

What if you could take a picture of trees on a log truck and know what that could become at the mill? That’s the big idea posed for a new project involving Bolding; Conrad; Alicia Peduzzi, assistant professor of precision forestry; and Guoyu Lu, assistant professor of computer vision, machine learning and robotics in the UGA College of Engineering. The idea recently qualified for a SEED grant from UGA’s Institute for Integrative Precision Agriculture.

“The idea is, using photographs and videos to predict volume and weight on log trucks,” said Bolding. “Can I take a picture or video of a log truck and correlate that to board feet, cubic feet or weight in tons?”

This spring, faculty, staff, and a team of graduate students, led by Kinz, will spend time at two Interfor sawmills to document log trucks as they arrive. The team will then measure the unloaded logs and correlate volume to weight.  

The idea is to predict load volume and weight quickly, inexpensively and from almost anywhere. This technology could help logging businesses load log trucks to the legal limit on every trip, thus avoiding costly underloads or occasional overweight fines. The technology could also be used by mills to better track and manage their log inventories. 

But before that can happen, the researchers must collect the data and develop models that predict volume and weight from images.

From research to outreach

As the researchers develop new recommendations and best practices through these new tools, they will pass them on to professionals through continuing education short courses. Many forestry professionals are required to complete continuing education classes, and these projects allow faculty to directly communicate what they are discovering to small business owners.

While all these projects have different goals, Bolding said he hopes that, over time, he and his team will be able to use the data collected to develop a suite of products to help loggers, timber buyers and others run their businesses more efficiently.

“Perhaps these studies will lead to a new spreadsheet tool or an app to improve efficiency,” he said. “These studies will provide the basis for new courses we are developing to communicate results to business owners and help them improve.”

As a new professor at Warnell, Bolding is excited about the opportunities he has available. There’s the Langdale Center for Forest Business, which supports assistantships for graduate student researchers who take on the bulk of the project management and data crunching. And then there’s partnerships with other faculty and industry connections that Warnell has gained over time.

All combine to create a pipeline of new projects and opportunities, student experiences, partnerships with industry and continuing education with professionals in the field.

“That’s our goal,” added Bolding. “Teaching, research and outreach working together to strengthen Georgia’s forest businesses.”

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