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In Dialogue with Logistics

Digitalisation in wood logistics

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From ancient to modern: technical innovations are completely reshaping the wood and forestry sectors

Smartphones, apps and paperless communications have now become the latest standard procedures in many lines of work – but is that true for wood logistics too? It is naturally not possible to convert trees into electronic data flows or digital processes, but a digital revolution is definitely taking place in forestry management too. Heiner Höfkes, the Managing Director at Rhenus Forest Logistics, reveals which technical innovations are already being used in wood logistics and which innovations are planned for the future.

Editorial department: the media have repeatedly reported during the last few years that wood has become a scarce commodity. But is there really a shortage of wood as a raw material?

Heiner Höfkes: One wort of wood is very different from another. The media have mainly been talking about construction timber and it was actually in short supply because of the high level of demand. This was mainly due to the fact that lots of people were unable to go on holiday during the pandemic and instead decided to renovate their homes – and therefore purchased a lot of construction timber. The price of wood also rose sharply because of this increase in demand and has now even tripled for certain sorts of timber. Overall, this has given the impression that wood is in short supply – but that mainly applies to construction timber. There have been enough stocks of wood itself as a raw material, that is to say the tree trunks from the forests. Strictly speaking, the amount of wood available in Germany has been enormous. If a lot of construction timber is cut down, there will also be a lot of sawmill residue – and there have not been any bottlenecks there. Compared to other areas of Europe, Germany is still one of the countries with enormous areas that are covered by forests and it’s even the country with the most resources in terms of wood. A huge amount of wood has been exported from Germany during the last few years, but this unfortunately is related to the fact that the trees aren’t coping with the dry weather and are therefore more susceptible to pests such as bark beetles and have had to be cut down.

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Facts and figures about wood as a raw material in Germany

  • One third of the country’s surface area (11.4 million hectares) is covered by forests
  • Germany has more wood resources than any other country in Europe
  • 90 billion trees grow in German forests
  • A complete truckload of wood grows again in German forests in just six seconds
  • The forests that are managed in Germany save 120 million tonnes of CO2 every year – that is 15 percent of the CO2 emissions in the country.

Editorial department: What kind of influence are bark beetles having on the wood industry?

Heiner Höfkes: The effects of the infestation by bark beetles can be clearly seen and felt in our forests. Spruce trees have suffered particularly badly as a result. This poses a huge problem for the wood industry, because most of the sawmills in Germany work with spruce timber: the trees grow quickly and are straight and are therefore ideal for the machines used in the sawmill industry. However, if a tree is infested with bark beetles, it has to be harvested as quickly as possible – and that is usually much earlier than when the tree should have been cut down.

80 million cubic metres of wood are felled in Germany every year – so-called ‘calamity wood’ recently accounted for about half of this figure, that is to way, wood that had been infested by bark beetles. In contrast to what people perhaps assume, wood attacked by bark beetles can still be used by almost all industries. The material is in great demand abroad too: we’ve exported more timber than ever to Asia and the USA during the last few years. The Rhenus Group has operated a large number of wood transport services in the field of export logistics as a result.

Editorial department: As regards transporting wood, whom does Rhenus Forest Logistics supply with wood as a raw material?

Heiner Höfkes: We primarily supply industry and the manufacturing sectors. That is to say, we transport woodchips as a so-called ‘intermediate product’ to a company, for example, and it then manufacturers paper or hygiene products such as paper hankies or toilet paper or even packaging materials such as egg cartons. This is a classic example of B2B operations, if you like. A large truck normally travels to the sawmill and transports the products from there to the client. This mainly involves sawmill by-products such as woodchips or even sawdust that occurs when preparing boards and joists – at least 40 percent of a tree ends up as sawmill by-products when the wood is processed. By acquiring the Bruno Reimann company, which is based in the Harz region, we’ve extended our range of services in this field and are now able to focus more strongly on logistics services for logs. We also supply customers in this region with wood pellets and firewood. They can even purchase the latter via the online shop.

Editorial department: What particularly sets Bruno Reimann apart as a logistics specialist in the wood sector?

Heiner Höfkes: Bruno Reimann has its headquarters in the Harz area, a region with many forests in Germany, and it handles the complete wood supply cycle. The company’s employees buy the piles of wood directly from the local forestry companies – that is to say, the huge stacks of wood from tree trunks that have been cut down, which you normally see at the side of a footpath if you go for a walk in a forest. The firm then transports the logs from the forest by truck directly to the customer or to rail services or to a port. These modes of transport are much more sustainable for fairly long distances than road services. The special thing here is that Bruno Reimann has three of its own railway sidings and ships 3,000 goods wagons to Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Poland and Austria from there every year. This saves about 1.8 million kilometres of empty journeys by trucks every year – that corresponds to a traffic jam that is 930 kilometres long or the distance between Oberammergau in the Allgäu region to Wilhelmshaven on the North Sea coast.

Editorial department: How does the wood actually reach the railway station or a truck from the forest?

Heiner Höfkes: During the first stage, the logistics companies either receive information about where the wood is being stored in the forests from the client or the forestry firm. This primarily takes place by exchanging maps, on which the piles of wood are marked. This information naturally does not just involve the site, but always the quantity and the quality of the wood too. Once the information has been shared, the trucks travel to the forest in order to load the tree trunks on board at the relevant site. Perhaps this sounds simple, but it’s actually rather complicated, because the truck drivers normally just have a printed piece of paper in their hands that contains all the important information: the location and quantity of the tree trunks or the volume of the pile of wood. When using this standard procedure, it’s of course possible that the drivers will arrive in the forest and the information on their note turns out to be wrong: perhaps a different quantity of wood is located at the marked site or the tree trunks have already been picked up. This creates frustration and unnecessary empty journeys, but it’s a common event in the wood industry. Very many processes are still handled manually and the companies are not that well networked with each other – at least not digitally. We’ve now found a digital solution for our company and it enables better coordination between all the employees and the drivers too.

Editorial department: What does this digital solution look like?

Heiner Höfkes: We use an app that we’ve developed in-house to administer orders and the piles of wood; as a result, we can manage the quantities of wood stored in forests in a better way and also communicate with our drivers and send them orders. The individual piles of wood are entered or loaded into the app system with numbers, GPS coordinates and the relevant quantity of wood. As a result, we generate what you might call a ‘digital map’, which also displays the drivers’ own location and the small footpaths through the forest. It’s possible for them to find their way through the forest at any time because the app works offline too. The various quantities and storage areas are combined within the app to form an order and are sent to the drivers – so that each of them exactly knows the route and the quantity of wood that they should pick up. The drivers then enter in the system the quantities that they’ve loaded on board their trucks.

The app is also connected to the telematic data of each vehicle, that is to say, the truck can send information about its own location, for example, or communicate with the digital system about how much wood has currently been loaded. While somebody is loading the truck, the vehicle can therefore provide an update about whether the wood is located where it’s supposed to be according to the plan and also pass on the information that the crane is currently loading wood.  

Editorial department: What is the benefit of using the app?

Heiner Höfkes: The main benefit obviously lies in being able to share information quickly between the client, the logistics specialist and the individual drivers. It’s an enormous advantage for all those involved to know as quickly as possible whether and what quantity of wood is situated at a particular place. This prevents unnecessary journeys and enables better planning for the routes and much better storage procedures. Digitalisation means very thorough process mapping and optimisation in the first stage in order to further standardise or automate the procedures downstream later. It’s important that we create some enthusiasm in all the stakeholders for the process. It’s a well-known fact that a system is only as good as the data that is available to it. If it doesn’t (yet) function automatically, it’s necessary for each individual to enter their activities directly in the system so that all those involved always have the latest information available. Any delay in actually loading the truck and entering this fact in the system can lead to errors or incorrect planning work.

By having the app, we’re basically able to map the entire delivery process digitally. For example, we can issue an electronic delivery note for our clients or enable the recipients to sign the tablet once they’ve received the goods. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work out in practice as we would like it to. Many of our clients themselves don’t yet have that many digital systems in place. As a result, we’re unable to link up the systems with each other and instead follow the old tradition of sending them a delivery note in paper form, which we then digitalise ourselves and store the information in our app. However, we’re well-equipped for the future with our app solution and are supporting our clients as they digitalise their systems too.

Editorial department: What other digital solutions are available in the world of wood logistics?

Heiner Höfkes: It’s true that there’ are already many different systems and digital freight forwarding services in the market, but none of these options has yet revolutionised the market or fully met our requirements. We not only offer our clients logistics services, but also take over all the services associated with purchasing and trading in wood as a raw material. That’s the reason why we’ve developed our own app and we use it to manage our quantities of wood and the journeys made by trucks.  

There are now even apps available, which you can use to take a photo of a pile of wood and it then directly calculates the volume of the tree trunks that are located there for you. Some harvesting machines are also equipped with digital features: when they cut down, debranch a tree trunk or remove the bark, for example, they can also directly measure its diameter – so that foresters know exactly how much wood they’ve harvested and can then pass on this information to us as the logistics specialist. These could be the next stages for integrating operations. Initial attempts are also already being made for drones to fly through a forest; they can then recognise how many trees are standing in the forestry district and can therefore measure the volume of the tree trunks. By using this information, it’s possible to determine more precisely and quickly the supplies or quantities of wood that have been harvested. This procedure makes it easier to calculate processes and plan the logistics work.  

Editorial department: How do you think wood logistics will develop in future?

Heiner Höfkes: Trucks as a means of transport are indispensable in wood logistics, because they’re the only mode of transport that offers the possibility of transporting wood as a raw material from forests quickly and without any complications. Generally speaking, analogue procedures still dominate much of the work in truck logistics. However, there’ll be significant ongoing developments to digitalise the processes, both in truck and in wood logistics, during the next few years.

For example, experts are trying to develop a tree trunk recognition system – that it to say, a kind of digital fingerprint along the supply chain. This makes it possible to track at any time where the tree grew, where it was transported to and at which place it was last processed. There are even pairs of spectacles that work in a similar manner to VR glasses and make it easier for drivers to load the tree trunks. They continue sitting comfortably in their cab and put on these glasses, which are connected to a camera on the crane. Because the camera image is transferred to the glasses, the drivers can see everything from their cab as if they were sitting up on the crane and loading the tree trunks from there. This is very practical, particularly in bad weather. Especially in the light of the shortage of drivers in the sector, the next step would then involve truck drivers making their way to the pile of wood in the forest, having their lunch break there, while somebody from the office can use the technology to load the vehicle at the same time. This eases the burden on drivers and the general processes function more efficiently. However, we don’t believe that the system has been fully developed yet. The quality of the digital networks in many regions isn’t adequate yet either.

We believe that there’ll be significant development potential for Rhenus Forest Logistics in future too. By acquiring Bruno Reimann, we’re continuing to expand our capabilities in the field of wood logistics and are penetrating the value-added chain even more deeply. We can then offer our clients even better services. From a technical point of view, our goal is clearly to digitalise the processes without any kinds of gaps. However, we naturally remain curious to see how the technology within the sector will develop during the next few years and decades and what kinds of demands our clients will place on us – but we’ll definitely have some solutions!

Would you like some more detailed information?

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