Automation presents a solution to worker shortages across the forestry product industry. But despite the growing demand for forest products and the lack of workers, the industry has been slow to adopt automation technology. The reason? One study points to a lack of knowledge about automated technology and the unique challenges of lumber as obstacles. Yet These obstacles can be overcome. Automation is possible in forestry product mills, and its benefits make taking a second look at it worth the investment.
Reasons for Worker Shortages in the Wood Industry
The shortage of skilled and unskilled workers in the United States is a problem for forest product industries at a time when the industry is experiencing rapid growth. Growth cannot happen if labor isn’t available.
While it would be nice if a single federal policy change could solve the issue, multiple factors have converged to create the current labor shortage. Factors include:
- Baby Boomers retiring in large numbers
- More young people going to college than to technical training
- Young people staying in school longer
- Decreasing number of business-sponsored training programs
- Lack of family-friendly work policies (key for overall workforce decline)
- Increased prison population and few opportunities for ex-inmates
- Bottlenecked legal immigration
- Crackdowns on illegal immigration
- Slow recovery from Great Recession
- Opioid crisis (rise in opioid prescriptions between 1999 and 2015 is linked to a 20 percent decrease in men’s workforce participation and a 25 percent decrease in women’s workforce participation)
Automation in Wood Forest Industry
With so many influencing factors, the current labor crisis isn’t going to disappear. For this reason, among others, industries across the United States have for years been investing in automation. Yet despite the trend, the forest product industry hasn’t kept pace with others in regards to automation technologies.
The problem isn’t that the technology isn’t available for the industry. Automation and other technology-driven work solutions have been successfully implemented. For example, Caterpillar has successfully operated remote feller-bunchers at Fort Bragg so workers can harvest trees without exposing themselves to explosives and armed soldiers. And more than a decade ago, Veneer Services® created an automated veneer grading line that works with voice activation to automatically sort and stack wood veneer.
The problem is, rather, twofold: 1) managers in the forest-product industry don’t understand automated technology, and 2) wood is more difficult to handle than other products for which processing has been automated.
According to a European study about robotic automation in forestry, managers in the forestry industry lack experience with robotic technology. Because of this, they have difficulty implementing automated technologies into their processes. They commonly attempt to automated the most complex processes and expect too much of the technology. This, combined with a lack of research on the front end, result in bad experiences and decreased likelihood that they’ll attempt to use automated technology again.
The same study noted that, to a lesser degree, wood itself is a hindrance to automation. Wood quality varies from supplier to supplier. And by nature, wood is not uniform in its composition, so automating equipment to handle and process it can be difficult.
Furthermore, because there are so few automated solutions at work in the forest product industry, many companies are starting from ground zero in terms of implementing automation. Entirely new processes and material handling equipment must be developed.
Benefits of Automating Wood Processing
For those companies willing to tackle the difficulties, they position themselves to receive a host of benefits:
- Increased safety
- Reduced monotonous and straining steps
- Reduced reliance on human labor
- Reduced labor costs
- Increased productivity
- Higher quality end product
- Higher yields
- Increased production capacity
Conclusion—Success When Implemented
While it’s not likely that every part of wood processing will or can be automated, automation has already been proven in portions. The aforementioned veneer grading line system from Veneer Services® is one such example. The system automated sorting and stacks veneers, increasing processing times and capacity while reducing labor.
To learn more about automated technologies from Veneer Services®, visit the Services page.
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