Forest Tech Secures Future Fiber

The US pulp and paper industry’s most iconic source of fiber, and a symbol of industry sustainability, is the tree. According to the AF&PA, one-third of the US is forested—that’s 751 million acres—and more than 56 percent of US forests are privately owned, much of it by family forest owners. These privately-owned forests supply 91 percent of the wood harvested in the US.

Yet the prosaic portrait of a lumberjack swinging an axe has long been relegated to the past. Today, forest fiber is grown, harvested, and managed with technology that Paul Bunyan could never dream of. We asked two forest tech experts—Matthew Flood, ForestSight product manager, John Deere Construction and Forestry Division; and Tim Vallings, chief commercial officer, Rezatec—to share their perspectives on how forest technologies help ensure a steady stream of fiber.

How have “precision forestry” technologies improved forestry practices?

Flood: Precision forestry technologies have enabled gathering of larger and more accurate amounts of machine and production information, data, and metrics. Historically, stakeholders in forestry might have perceived machine telematics as the only technology available; however, the data, insights, and algorithms that can be derived from this information can contribute to machine and business optimization.

Machines are now doing more than just gathering and sharing information; they are truly becoming “connected” to our world. A customer can view information about the machines at his or her fingertips from a location on the opposite side of the world. Dealers and technicians can remotely monitor and connect to machines and initiate data collection on demand or based on triggers such as machine alerts or fault codes. This has helped customers optimize business decisions and returns.

Vallings: In the past few years we have seen an upsurge in the availability of a wide range of satellite imagery, both radar and optical, coming from the private and public sectors. As a result, the product outputs that can be derived from satellites has improved dramatically—which has had the knock-on impact to forestry in the form of greater frequency, automation, and scalability of information, but not at the expense of cost to the client.

Consequently, needs such as harvest boundary mapping, silviculture practices, pest and disease identification, storm damage, and fire severity indexing have all benefitted. This has allowed foresters to become far more responsive to the needs of their land assets, based on the knowledge now being provided to their mobile phones and laptops.

How can forest technologies help ensure that the pulp, paper, and packaging industries have sustainable sources of fiber?

Vallings: Satellite-derived, geospatial data analytics offer effective new methods for mill operators to streamline mill logistics, improve profitability and competitiveness, and make more informed decisions on timber procurement and capex investments. The key factor in mill production efficiency and competitiveness is ensuring that mills process the right mix of species and log sizes. If mill operators know in advance what they can expect from their harvesting operations (species, dimensions, and quality) they can optimize their production schedule and minimize the need for any excess inventory. This in turn can be aligned within the supply chain as to requisite outputs for the pulp, paper, and packaging industries to ensure a sustainable and reliable source of fiber.

Flood: Machines are now becoming capable of summarizing and sharing real-time production data with equipment owners. Because of this real-time data, equipment owners can build a different, mutually beneficial relationship with forest industry stakeholders to potentially provide a better understanding of wood or fiber inventory at different stages across the value stream. Additionally, the improved data collection from machines could help provide a better understanding of actual forest inventory relative to estimations and measurements.

What’s the most exciting new capability you see coming (or already here) in tech-enabled forest management?

Flood: We are moving into a new era that is enabled by telematics and increased sensor data. In this era, through enhanced sensor information, we are able to harvest more data from machines and learn even more about how they are being utilized on the job and how contractors are being successful.

We are moving into The Operator Assistance Era, where machines are becoming easier to operate—smarter and capable of adapting to situations on the jobsite regardless of the experience level of the operator sitting in the seat. As a result, business owners are able to better understand how an investment into a machine or system of machines can impact their business returns.

Vallings: In the longer term, having access to satellite-flown LIDAR (a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser) will be a step change for the industry; that is a few years away, but something to look forward to. In the meantime, the most exciting new capability is the precision with which companies generating satellite derived data analytics are able to provide information on an increasingly regular basis. The industry has relied on a cyclical monitoring timeframe in the past, which in some cases has resulted in only a 10-year revisit to some sites. This thought process has now been turned on its head and the client can not only get data on any part of its land asset whenever needed, but can also ask for an entire landscape review so that it can react according to need, not just what it finds from the ground.

New Whitepaper Looks at Non-Wood Fibers in US Tissue
Interest in tissue products containing non-wood fibers is increasing in industrialized nations. This interest has intensified since Essity announced the addition of straw pulping capability at its mill in Manheim, Germany. So why aren’t more US tissue products made from some percentage of non-wood fibers? What are the best solutions for launching US tissue products that may be more environmentally friendly?

One fundamental raw material criterion will be a deciding factor in answering both questions: in the US, the fiber must already be accumulated for some other reason in order to offset harvesting costs. This is the basis of the 19-plant deal between Bunge and BP in Brazil, which was announced in the Wall Street Journal in July 2019.

A new whitepaper forthcoming in Tissue360° will summarize findings on non-wood fiber use in tissue, and how manufacturing costs and quality expectations for the US marketplace have been significant barriers to the inclusion of non-wood fibers in US tissue. Analysis indicates there are limited, viable options.

While currently there is no known US commercial use of US-produced non-wood fibers in consumer tissue products, there have been commercial uses of non-wood fibers in other paper products in the US. There have also been significant attempts to use non-wood fibers in paper products in the US; the whitepaper lists nine such projects. “Many people have been involved in more than one of the nine examples given,” comments the author of the paper, industry veteran B.A. Thorp. “I have been involved in six of the nine examples and have been at eight of the mills referenced.”

The paper also gives detailed overviews of US markets for tissue. “Recognizing that cost and quality play out differently in the retail or at-home market segment and the away-from-home or commercial market segment, separate reviews are needed,” Thorp writes. “A combination of technical and commercial information is required to understand the impact of these barriers and to focus only on high probability opportunities.”

The entire whitepaper will be available in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Tissue360°. Subscribe at