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RFID Chops Timber Costs

Using tags embedded in plastic nails, German forestry company Cambium tracks logs as they move from the forest to the factory.
By Rhea Wessel
Apr 03, 2006Cambium-Forstbetriebe, an independent German forestry company, oversees about 130 square kilometers (50 square miles) in the Odenwald region south of Frankfurt. Founded in 2003 by its current owner, Gerhard Friemel, the company offers services for privately owned forests, such as logging, pruning, planting saplings, clearing wood and underbrush and building trails. The land Cambium cares for includes a leased tract of 85 square kilometers (33 square miles) on which the company runs its own forestry operations. In total, Cambium harvests 2.8 million cubic feet of timber each year.

Cambium, named for an internal layer of living cells beneath the bark of a tree, tried to spark its own growth by implementing an RFID system to track timber from the time it's logged until it reaches the sawmill. Implemented in late 2005 and tested in early 2006, the system is based on Progress Real Time Division's RFID Accelerator technology, combined with a custom-designed application from DABAC, a German firm near Heilbronn. DABAC stands for Datenbank (Databases) à la Carte.

Logging timber and getting it from forests to sawmills is typically a drawn-out process involving several subcontractors, one that can be fraught with delays. In the first step, loggers with power saws fell trees in a cordoned-off area, removing the branches from the trunks. Another company, a skidder, then comes along with heavy machinery to drag the trunks and stack them along an unpaved road in the woods. In the third step, a contractor or employee of a forestry company picks up the trunks—which can be as long as 20 meters (65 feet)—and transports them via truck to their fourth point of handling: the end customers, which include sawmills, paper mills, furniture makers and others.

At any spot along this supply chain, days or even weeks can go by before the next step occurs, and sawmills have no advance notice or schedule indicating which and how much raw material will be available at any given time. Forestry companies, likewise, have little ability to speed up or slow down the supply chain to meet orders from various sawmills and manage their inventory. Despite the fact that 65-foot-long tree trunks are hard to overlook, logs frequently go missing—left behind in the woods or along the forest road, at a rate of 10 to 15 percent—because a truck is overloaded and the driver fails to return for a few logs. Finally, Cambium and other logging companies face a long billing cycle because they lack information as to when and which logs will be delivered to customers.

From time to time, various consultants have assisted timber firms in maximizing their supply chain with individual solutions, such as outsourcing to independent drivers or collecting log information with a bar-code reader. Cambium, however, wanted one single solution that involved all interested parties—forest owners, forest workers, log haulers, truck drivers and sawmills—and a system that could be sold to other forest management companies. No such system was available from consultants, so Cambium's owner decided to implement the hardware part of the system himself, with DABAC providing a specially developed software application called the Log Tracking System, or LTS.

Friemel got the idea for such a system after chatting with Michael Gross, a biologist employed by DABAC. The two men met at a management seminar in 2003 and began talking about the possibilities of an RFID system during happy hour. The software DABAC designed for Cambium is the first of its kind for the forestry industry, according to Gross. DABAC used Progress's OpenEdge 10, Sonic and ObjectStore RFID technology to create the application, based on two years of off-and-on consulting with Friemel.

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