Good morning, I’m Tony. Co founder of Wood Engineering Technology Ltd.
This is a story of entrepreneurship, innovation, technology and productivity
Most of you guys are engineers. Here’s a quiz question for you;
Can you get structural lumber from a 13-year-old pine tree.?
Answer -You couldn’t. more on that in a second
Another question, for the engineers. What would happen if wooden building materials could imitate the characteristics of concrete and steel in strength, stability, spanning capability and uniformity?
That would make a lot of change in the building industry, probably back into the wood processing also and maybe all the way back to forest growing. Sounds like a good strategy!
16 years ago, a group of us dared to believe that we could significantly change the economic productivity of log processing, building and forestry.
6 months ago, after starting from a blank piece of paper, we had designed and then constructed in Gisborne, an operating log processing factory using industry 4.0 concepts. We had just run a trial of 13-year-old “waste stream” logs from a redundant young pine stand in Kaingaroa forest that they needed to clear. No sawmill could make money by sawing them, so they were off to the pulp mill.
We suggested we take a couple of truck loads for a trial, what we produced from the young logs blew our minds. 100% of the sawn output was straight, stable, uniform pieces of structural engineered wood that was 25% stronger and at 40% higher yield than even anything obtainable from a mill processing the very best, most expensive sawlogs you could buy. Dr Warren Parker, amongst other things the current Chairperson of the FMAG, and the immediate past CEO of Scion, looked up from the packet of OEL™ lumber that we had just produced, and summed it up…” Tony, I think this probably changes everything”.
What had made this possible?
Biomimicry, combined with Industry 4 dot oh technology.
In order to make our strategy real we had earlier asked two important questions;
- How can you process a non-selected log into a uniform building product that exhibits the same strength as the log it came from;
- How could you manufacture continuously that building material, in just 10 hours from log to EWP, without a human touching, or making a decision about, any piece of wood?
Some explanation; Logs are strong; because trees wouldn’t exist otherwise. Nature evolved Wood over 700 million years ago, plenty of time to optimise for strength, flexibility and height since then.
Logs are strongest near their circumference, the outer 40% of the logs wood does 85% of the work holding the tree up, analogous to the engineering principles in a hollow column or an I beam. A clever and simple technique, and one that we would emulate.
Cut these logs up into small, regular shaped one meter pieces, test each piece, then stick them back together in the specific way that optimises the strength/stiffness along a 6 meter reconstructed length, then we would have mimicked the trees average strength and flexibility, and importantly engineered that into each and every piece of engineered wood product manufactured.
That’s how you can make the wood product as strong as the original logs it came from.
But to be other than an interesting curiosity, we would need to mass produce it, very cost effectively.
That’s where Industry 4.0 concepts come in. In our plant each of the 13 separate systems communicates seamlessly with each another. Information technology and operation technology are one and the same.
Every step in the production process is automated and often controlled by the performance of processes around it, responding to the data collected from thousands of sensors located along the process.
The Operating system continuously calculates algorithmically the raw material requirements, selection of internal parameter changes and selects for specific strength production outputs.
All our raw materials and finished goods are serialised and traceable.
The system can even tell our engineers when a machine is or is about to require maintenance be done on itself.
In this way mass quantities of standardised pieces of log strength engineered wood products are continuously made, without human physical or mental effort. A Cyber-physical system autonomously disassembling logs and reassembling engineered wood products all with specific beneficial characteristics
It had been impossible, and now it has been done.
Why now? Industrial automation and sensing costs that were high have now significantly reduced and are affordable and available, software is now being designed with interoperability at its core and is available off the shelf, cloud concepts are robust and reliable and you can lease it, and all the tech. continues to improve.
We took all that and combined it with the open source concepts freely available from nature, and innovated a patented, economically attractive solution, that makes wood the ideal building material, made out of thin air with free solar energy.
On that point our plants can be replicated anywhere with road access and 2 hectares of available land. They can locate off the grid, they don’t require reticulated energy as there is sufficient energy stored in the wood waste stream to energise all aspects of the factory. This allowed the concept of distributing the factory to the forest, not the logs to a large scale central processing facility.
Operating 24 hours a day from multiple sites is the objective:Is their sufficient demand for this new-concept building material?
Will investors get a worthwhile return from funding us into those multiple plants?
Is it worth the effort?
- OEL™ mimics steel in the very narrow standard variation it has around its mean strength. every piece is similar, and it is uniform along its length. It spans widely.
- Its geometry is stable – no twisting, warping, cupping or bowing.
- Its light and strong and uniform while still being flexible – very good for seismic regions, mass timber doesn’t burn well and out survives steel in a blaze.
- Its very efficient building material and costs builders and truss and frame operators less to use
- Its even less expensive for us to manufacture than conventional lumber and has an attractive financial margin.
- It increases the productivity of the forests.
- the product has a Carbon negative footprint and substitutes for concrete and steel in mid and high rise.
- It introduces high skilled and well-paid workers into the regions.
That’s why its loved by Engineers, builders, consumers, regulators, investors and governments alike. It would seem therefore to be in the direction of goodness.
So; using Industry 4.0 concepts to autonomously disassemble trees and reassemble engineered wood products, has made real the prospect of massive productivity gain in the forestry, wood processing, and building industries. We estimate an order of magnitude change along that supply chain.
When you combine technologies from different realms, nature and industry, you can create a mind-blowing change in productivity.
Productivity is what drives civilisation and societal change. We believe that productivity is what will solve the global warming problem and our environmental issues – getting more from less is what we have to do.
Definitely worth the effort.
That’s my talk.
I humbly thank you for listening.