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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
The New Way
With Cambium's LTS RFID system, a forest worker uses a specially designed hammer to pound into the end of a trunk a passive RFID 125 kHz inlay embedded in a plastic nail. Produced by Sokymat, of Granges, Switzerland, the RFID-enabled nails are 35.5 millimeters (1.4 inches) long and 4 millimeters (0.2 inch) in diameter, made of polyamide reinforced with glass fiber. They cost about 25 cents apiece, according to DABAC. The hammer was designed by Friemel and his RFID project manager, Friedrich Wagner.

The chip carries only an ID number on it, and that number is unique worldwide. Information about the type of tree, length, diameter and quality, together with the ID number from the nail, is entered into an HP handheld computer guided by voice commands. Loggers wear a specially designed safety helmet outfitted with a microphone and headphone connected by cable to the handheld computer (carried inside a jacket). Workers simply speak the descriptions of the trunks. Menus are available in German or English, and a worker can select whether he wants to be prompted for the information or wants to simply call it out. The software for the voice-driven system was developed by MediaInterface Dresden. MediaInterface even managed to develop a system that could recognize the heavy accents of workers in the Odenwald region. This software can be reprogrammed for specific accents around the world.

One challenge designers had to meet was making sure the nails would be strong enough to be inserted into frozen wood.

The workers wear an Assion Electronic RFID interrogator (reader) that resembles a PCMCIA card and is attached to a wristband. After a tag is hammered into a trunk, the interrogator is used to read its unique ID number, which is then transferred by cable to the handheld. The interrogator must be held very close to the nail because of its tag's short 2- to 3-centimeter (0.8- to 1.2-inch) read range. Data is then ready to be sent over a GSM wireless network to a central database or, more cost-effectively, via a WLAN connection. If no GSM or WLAN connection is available in the woods, as is often the case, the data can be sent once a logger returns to a coverage area, or to the office. "If we get data once a day, that's plenty," says Friemel. All steps in the process, he reports, are rain- and snow-proof.

Once the information arrives from the reader into the DABAC system, it is processed there and can be saved in a file format called ELDAT, if a company wants to import data files to existing software. The LTS does not replace a logging company's software; it merely augments it with various new information-management functions. According to Friemel, the ELDAT file format is supported by various industry groups and is used widely in the forestry sector.
The RFID tags solve the problem of lost flags or labels and smudged notebooks because information about the status and location of each trunk is collected at each step in the process. Should a nail break or get lost, information from the last step in the supply chain would still be available. By using the process of elimination, a log can be identified and its previous status can be determined.

Once the logs have been dragged to the side of a forest road, the log hauler takes count by reading the tags with his handheld HP computer. Once this new information reaches the database, it will be compared with the information submitted by the loggers. The two sets of data allow Cambium to confirm that all trees felled were dragged to the road, with none forgotten under debris or behind other trees. In most cases, when a patch of land is logged, only select trees are felled, and the forest is simply thinned out rather than clear-cut. Because of this practice, it's possible to overlook trunks on larger patches of land.

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