The Challenges of introducing technology into the forest sector

By Ronaldo Soares, Forestry General Manager at Hexagon's Agriculture division

Cut woods in a planted forest

03 November 2022

The digitalisation has already arrived in the forest, each day more and more processes suffer incorporation of software and hardware, producing an infinite amount of information. Although we have a totally unexplored terrain and an almost unknown range to acquire new knowledge, we still have some challenges to overcome.

While the harvesting area absorbed Scandinavian technology, introducing harvesters, forwarders, skidders, and clambunks, we are leaving an activity that was based on chainsaws, debarkers, autoloaders, and trucks with low load capacity. When we talk about the implementation of forests, this activity follows the steps of the evolutionary and technological process of agriculture, which in turn is always one step ahead when it comes to innovation.

There are some reasons why this time difference occurs, among some of them we observe:

  • The short cycle of maturation and commercialisation of agricultural products, leads to an analysis of investment and results with greater speed.
  • The great interest of agricultural machinery manufacturers in this market, due to the high demand for their products.
  • A more vertical management, which often facilitates the decision making, speeds up the acquisition and adoption of new technologies, because there are few involved in terms of investment risks. 

According to Fenabrave (Braziliam Federation of Motor Vehicle Distribution), in 2021, the commercialisation of agricultural machines was 58,733 units, with an accumulation of 239,094 units in the last 5 years. It is estimated that the forestry market represents only between 1 and 3%, which would explain the lack of interest of manufacturers in this segment.

The very search for data about the production and commercialisation sector of forestry machines and implements is already a great challenge. This is because we have less than a dozen large manufacturers specialising in the area and a hundred smaller scale manufacturers, which compete fiercely with the budget of the forestry sector. The big slice of the market is concentrated in the small manufacturers and enthusiasts of the sector and that, for a geographical/organizational issue, do not have any kind of association and statistics. 

The lack of options in manufacturers of forestry implements is not an exclusive problem in America, this is also observed in other continents with a very similar cause: the low number of sales in this market. Forestry from forest planting to harvesting shares the same problem no matter where you are in the world. 

Companies try to find local solutions, which is that service provider, who usually serves the metal-mechanic sector or small implement manufacturers and who dazzle with this opportunity, expand their business. Motivated by the forestry operation in developing solutions, they usually take a first step through a prototype and that after several trial-and-error attempts rarely manage to turn this into a universalized commercial product. Some companies subsidize these processes, both financially and technically, because there is a need for silvicultural technical-scientific operational knowledge to support this development. Although this occurs, we have already observed over the years that it is not enough to support this initiative. We then have a deficiency of financial resources and, consequently, technical level of manufacturing and constructive project on the part of these solution suppliers, which reflects in equipment with a low level of standardization and technology, although all the effort and motivation has been employed. 

The very uncertainties or customsed orders from the same company, or neighboring companies with very similar operational demands end up dividing even more this small sector of suppliers, competing for the same resource and market. It is not uncommon in the same company to find in the operation, 30 or more pieces of equipment that although they have been manufactured by one or two suppliers, have between them, such significant differences, that for the introduction of technology is necessary a substantial change and adaptation. This fact increases costs, takes time, and often even makes the deployment of this equipment unfeasible. It could easily have been solved with a standardised and technological manufacturing project.

The adaptation of agricultural implements for the forestry sector is not a simple task, as there are characteristics of each sector that determine the robustness, quality, construction engineering and technological level. Among these differences, we can mention the number of hours used/year/equipment, terrain conditions, such as the existence of stumps and waste, topography and outsourcing itself.

In the dynamics of this challenge, we have 4 actors mainly involved:

  1. Pulp and wood derivatives companies.
    By design, companies in the forestry segment are focused on their final product, allocating most of their resources to this end. One of the factors that can influence this reduction of investments from the beginning of a forest plantation is probably the long cycle, more than 6 years. This long wait for harvesting brings up many uncertainties to the investor/manager of which return guarantees. These doubts are difficult to be answered due to the variables, such as climate, pests and diseases, genetic choice, and economic political situation.
  2. Service providers.
    When we talk about service providers, their "core business" is also in forest implantation and maintenance goals, not having time, resources or skilled personnel for the development of machines, however, due to the difficulties already exposed the need almost "sine qua non" of survival to venture into these paths of development and manufacturing. The result is not always the expected one, and usually they fall into the same problem as the small implement manufacturers.
  3. Small implement companies.
    The small manufacturers, but not the least important and enthusiastic of the sector, are truly the mainstay of forest mechanisation and modernization. Their size and technical capacity is directly intertwined with the financial contribution dedicated to them. While recent years have seen the entry of new manufacturers, we also see many traditional manufacturers leaving the industry, discouraged by the lack of investment. Here we are talking not only about financial resources, but also about technical knowledge. In other parts of the world, such as Europe, USA, Canada, among others; they already commonly use the ISOBUS communication standard, which allows tractor and implement integration regardless of the brand, expanding the operation's data collection. The established, standardised market of the large manufacturers of machinery and implements in Brazil has not yet managed to massively implement ISOBUS, due to legislation and standardisation of the factories. So, imagine how late this will occur for small manufacturers.
  4. Large manufacturers of agricultural and forest harvesting machines.
    The large manufacturers, especially those of tractors, harvesters, and forwarders, try to develop products based on the good results and added values of forest harvesting. But developing innovative solutions even with a limited market is not such an easy task, and this action is insufficient for the so desired Forest 4.0 to happen. What is necessary to understand is that the speed of market demand always runs ahead of investments, and this is aggravated in the time we are living in, the information age, the now!

So, what is the solution to overcome these challenges? There is no single action, nor a simple answer, but we believe that a greater synergy between those involved, specific study groups, universities, and specialists with adequate financial and technical resources have found the answer. 

Finally, what we can observe is that the technological gap between the agricultural and forestry sectors has been narrowing every year. Part of this is due to the large investments that are occurring in the forestry sector with new plants and production expansion. Even the very competitiveness in the sector and the availability of information that we have nowadays in just a click in the palm of our hand, we can check in any sector or part of the world what is happening in terms of news and innovation, making this contribute a lot to reduce this technological gap between the two sectors, pushing the forestry sector to a new level.