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Twin transition in the timber industry

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Currently, we can witness two grand transitions creating optimism and challenges in various walks of life: digitalisation and sustainability. Together, they are often referred to as the twin transition. Estonian scientists and engineers are leading an initiative that aims to harness these two transitions in the value chain of the timber industry.

Digitalising the entire value chain

About 20 years ago, the timber sector used to be at the forefront of automatization. Especially in the Scandinavian countries with large forestry and timber industries, sawmills and production lines achieved extremely high productivity. However, since then, the innovation in the sector has been somewhat dormant, and other sectors have benefitted more from digitalization. Now, Estonia’s engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs aim to turn that around.

“The 5G Timber project aims at the entire wood value chain from timber machinery used in sawmills, to modular wooden house construction plants and to the structural monitoring of timber buildings,” says Muhammad Mahtab Alam, Professor at TalTech, project coordinator. “Using a combination of technologies such as digital twins, 5G networks, augmented reality and so on, our aim is no less than to create a credible pathway to climate-neutral, circular, and digitalized timber industry.”

Although, due to the wide ambition, the project has several concurrent lines of research and development, this article focuses on the beginning of the value chain in sawmills.

Digital twin: a “Snapchat” for maintenance and training

“In sawmills, we are aiming to do what flight simulators achieved in aviation,” says Aimar Parm, technical lead of the project at Hekotek, a sawmill machinery producer. “As a result of our developments we want to create a digital twin of the production line that functions just like the real one. We believe that this will revolutionize the sector.”

A digital twin is often used as a fancy name for a digital 3D model of something, for example, a city. What engineers and scientists at TalTech and partnering Politecnico di Milano are aiming at is a step beyond this. In addition to being a detailed copy, their model captures real-time data from the real production line. This has positive implications for the maintenance, optimisation, and schooling of new engineers.

“We are working on an augmented reality-based model of the machinery used in sawmills. To make an analogy, it would be just like Snapchat for my 9-year-old daughter where she can overlay a moustache to her own video,” says Mr Parm. “For maintenance, any reasonably educated technician could direct a phone or a tablet towards the machinery and clearly see which parts require maintenance, how to do it and when they were last maintained.”

Instead of relying on a few highly trained specialists, this would allow a wider pool of technicians to work on maintenance. New technology would even translate the instruction manuals and read them out in the native language of the technician. Combined, this would lower the cost and significantly increase maintenance reliability.

The same digital twin would also serve as a training platform for new engineers and technicians. Currently, new recruits would stand next to a production line operator, and there, amidst noise and dust, would hopefully learn how the line is operated. With the digital model, they could learn almost all of its functioning in a comfortable environment, where operations could also be stopped at will to explain certain aspects.

Towards self-operating factories

These steps are first in the line for an eventually fully-automated sawmills that relies on a combination of modelling, remote sensing and AI. At conservative estimates, this would lead to a 15% increase in efficiency, according to Tauno Otto, professor at the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at TalTech.

“Our sawmills are producing about 150 pieces of timber per minute, which makes about 3 pieces per second. If the material clogs up, it takes 3-4 minutes to clear it up, but if some part is poorly maintained and breaks during operations, this would lead to 3-4 hours of downtime. This all can be avoided when the production line can evaluate the material going through the line with sensors and adjust the speed accordingly,” says Professor Otto.

Automatisation and the increase of reliability in maintenance would have a significant impact on the productivity of the overall timber sector.

“Wood is the most widely used sustainable construction material, and it is growing in use. However, the underutilisation of wood — standing at only 63% in the EU — the high amount of waste — 50-65% — and resource inefficiency present security threats to EU citizens and markets. They account for the decrease in the competitiveness of EU enterprises compared to big exporters, like China”, says Professor Muhammad Mahtab Alam, the Scientific Project Coordinator at TalTech. “We would also be able to use our scarce resources better.”

The 5G-Timber project has currently ended its lab trial phase and started implementing the digital twin technology for field trials. The consortium comprises 16 organisations from 10 countries and will operate until 2025.

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