IOT in the woodworking industry

By: Zarine Susan George

Recently an antique woods dealer set his eyes on my grandmother’s lovely rosewood cupboard, which has passed the century mark, and offered a substantial amount for it. Made of thick heavy rosewood, the cupboard has stood the test of time with no marks, scratches or decay and still very much usable.

However, looking at recent trends, my grandmother’s cupboard is likely to end up as a museum piece, just like the American railroad. The success of IKEA in India has confirmed that Generation X’s preference is in the direction of modular, convenient, do-it-yourself, low-cost furniture.

Out of these “low cost” seems to be the major attractive factor, especially with IKEA planning to launch rental furniture in 30 countries. Low cost is also expected to be a trump card against competition from other materials such as plastics, metals and concrete.

Cost reduction can be achieved in several ways, mostly by reducing the cost of operations through lean manufacturing, optimum utilisation of resources, reduction of waste in material and processes, increased mechanisation and automation, fewer errors, reduction in human resources, mass production, just-in-time inventory, etc.

Four revolutions

The woodworking industry has generally had a stand-offish attitude towards technology with even mechanised tools being adopted very late. However, recent trends have left manufacturers with no choice but to embrace the very latest in technology.

While the first two industrial revolutions were mainly brought about by mechanisation and electricity, the third revolution saw the introduction of computer automation in manufacturing through PLCs (programmable logic controllers) and robots.

The fourth revolution now sees the rise of digital transformation and virtualisation, enabling seamless interaction between physical devices and software systems. This is likely to disrupt the business landscape and revolutionize the operations process. I-Scoop defines “Industry 4.0” as the information-intensive transformation of manufacturing and other industries in a connected environment of data, people, processes, services, systems and IoT-enabled industrial assets with the generation, leverage and utilisation of actionable information as a way and means to realise “smart” industry and ecosystems of industrial innovation and collaboration.

Some of the emerging technologies in ‘Industry 4.0’ are artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, quantum computing and nanotechnology. Of these IoT is the major game changer.

Techopedia defines IoT as a computing concept that describes the idea of everyday physical objects being connected to the internet and being able to identify themselves to other devices.

IOT in woodworking

IoT has found many uses within major processes in the woodworking industry resulting in increased productivity gains, higher quality and reduced costs. Some of the operations in which IoT has scope are saw milling, seasoning of wood, predictive maintenance, energy monitoring and performance management.

While the basic principle of saw milling remains the same – a rough log goes in one side and a precisely cut board appears on the other side – the sophistication and the speed with which it is produced has increased by leaps and bounds.

Scanning and optimising systems have replaced human judgement in deciding the optimal and profitable cut, based on a quantitative and qualitative collection of data such as grade, texture and knots. This also helps reduce wastage of raw material by optimum utilisation.

The ability to classify logs based on their physical characteristics also helps in quality control. Scanners can be connected to order and demand forecasting systems to ensure cuts for which you have demand, thereby reducing wastage and excess inventory. They can also be connected to market pricing systems to ensure even more profitable cuts!

The by-products of saw milling – such as sawdust, bark, woodchips and wood pellets – are utilised for other industries. Diversifying helps reduce wastage and also spreads the risk. Mill owners can plan what products to produce based on demand ensuring maximum profitability and productivity.

This is especially important in an industry where, besides labour, the major challenge lies in getting a steady affordable supply of wood. This makes it imperative to make use of every scrap of wood. As one enterprising mill owner put it, “We need to turn 5 feet of a log into 6 feet of product.”

Take the case of HHP Inc., a hardwood sawmill in Henniker, New Hampshire (US). In 2005, HHP invested US$4 million in specialised equipment to enhance productivity. It uses advanced scanners and sawyers for precise trimming and the extraction of the maximum saleable product from a log of wood.

It also cut down HHP’s labour force significantly. In 1989, with 20 employees, the company had sales of US$2.5 million a year. In 2005, with 50 employees, the sales have increased to US$18 million.

Seasoning wood

The connectivity that IoT provides between different processes, machines, maintenance, and safety systems also enables to remotely monitor saw and planer performance, as well as temperature or moisture content of wood and kilns, ensuring a more effective and efficient overall mill operation.

IOT has a very significant role in the drying process due to its inherent sensing capabilities. Most of the drying process is based on temperature and humidity control.

Many technology firms in the US and Europe have robust integrated hardware and software solutions for industrial drying kilns specifically for the wood industry. PLCs can be connected to temperature sensors, heat coils, fans, etc. A PC monitors and controls all PLCs.

This maintains optimal temperature and humidity automatically with no human interference and lowers the chance for human error. The same kiln can be used for different types of wood with different temperature requirements, eliminating the need for multiple types of equipment.

The additional advantage is the availability of wide range of real-time measurement data, enabling proactive action. It prevents errors and wastage of wood, which is a big issue in the wood industry.

Maintenance & monitoring

The sensory capabilities of IoT can be used to predict maintenance or faulty machines, preventing equipment breakdown and, therefore, loss of productivity. With machines connected to the internet all the time, there is a constant sharing of information in real time.

The data can be used to predict the need for maintenance and accordingly, it can be scheduled. The machines can be directly connected to the supplier’s systems, enabling prompt action.

Many companies provide easy-to-use and visually rich cloud-based software dashboard that shows real-time status and performance of machines, enabling effective infrastructure management. IOT enables remote monitoring of machines via smartphones.

“Smart glasses” are the latest technology through which, if personnel detect a defect, s/he can wear the glasses and the service department can see what s/he can see and solve the issue in real time instead of waiting for a technician.  Predictive maintenance significantly enhances machine productivity.

The insights generated by IoT can further be used to measure, monitor and control energy consumption. Advanced power strips, load-shedding devices, and occupancy sensors allow for remote and automated measurement and control. The automation protocols can be programmed to ensure maximum efficiency in energy usage.

Performance management

The unique selling proposition of IoT is its ability to provide data. A firm can gain exponentially by investing in the right range of data analytics tool and taking corresponding measures.

Suppose a manager wants to see the number of cabinets produced by a unit in a day. A “smart” chip can be installed, which will be activated after the completion of each cabinet.

The manager can get real-time data on the number of cabinets being produced and time taken to produce and correct any aberrations in the data. It will also enable him/her to perform root cause analysis, remove bottlenecks and further improve productivity.

 

The adoption of IoT is nascent in the technology-agnostic woodworking industry. There are many barriers to adoption. One is data security. With most devices and equipment connected to the internet, data can be vulnerable to attack from hackers who can disrupt the system just for fun.

Care should be taken to implement robust encryption algorithms in the IoT system. Networking can also prove to a hassle with the multitude of devices connected and data to be transported.

One can overcome this using Li-Fi which, overcoming bandwidth limitations, allows more data at faster speeds than conventional networking devices.

Cost barrier

The other major implementation barrier is cost. A senior manager may baulk at the cost, especially since the benefit is not quickly visible and benefits are difficult to quantify.

The woodworking industry must also take changing environmental regulations into consideration. With increasing environmental awareness, there’s more resistance to the felling of trees. The latest technology can help conform to environmental norms.

One way for senior management to overcome their objection to cost is to start small. Start with an important, but relatively low-cost investment area to begin with.

Fortunately, IoT is scalable and more devices and equipment can be added to the centralised analytics system as the benefits become apparent. Furthermore, IoT costs are reducing as the technology goes mainstream.

In future, despite its temporary limitations, the tough competition that the furniture and the wood industry face in the current market scenario will make IoT the norm rather than the exception.

– The writer is an Associate Business Consultant with Tech Mahindra, Bengaluru.

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