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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
Another check occurs during the third step, when a truck driver appears on the scene to haul off the logs. Once his truck is loaded, the driver does a reading with his handheld computer and information is compared.

Finally, the sawmill, paper mill or furniture maker receiving the trees uses an RFID-enabled handheld computer to note the trunks delivered. Again, information is compared so that any discrepancies are noted in the central database. Plastic nails remain in the base of the trunk and are removed when the processor slices off the bottom of the trunk to create an even surface.

Thanks to the Cambium system, the company has reduced shrinkage (the loss of logs in the woods because they are forgotten or left behind by drivers) by 70 percent.

"It would be ideal to have a portal reader at the sawmill, but the signal range from the nails is too short, and it would be too expensive to upgrade it," said Wagner.

In addition to receiving the tracking information, the end customer will have access to geographical data and information on the date, time and weather conditions when a tree was cut. Some companies apply premium pricing for wood cut from select areas, while some time their processing of the wood based on the day it was cut and the type of tree.

Cambium says it has invested about 80,000 to 100,000 euros ($96,000 to $120,000) in the system, and DABAC says it has put in about 500,000 euros ($602,000). Friemel expects ROI to be achieved in three to four years, largely due to the sale of the system to other companies, but also as a result of its own efficiency gains.

While implementing the RFID system, Cambium ran into several problems. For one, there were questions about the plastic nails' performance during winter. The nail tags' operating temperature is -25 to 85°C, so the outside temperature was not a problem, but it was unclear if the nails would be strong enough to be inserted into frozen wood.

"The nails worked fine with the soft wood of summer," Friemel says. But much logging is done in the winter to reduce the damage done to the forest by heavy machinery. When the ground is frozen, heavy trucks don't leave ruts. In the initial parts of the test phase, the nails were damaged when they were hammered into a frozen trunk. Therefore, Friemel took it upon himself to help design a hammer with a manual drill to bore a hole into the trunk before pounding begins. A friend of his welded this attachment onto the hammer.

A second problem was finding handheld computers that could withstand the bumps and jarring of the logging profession and the cold, wet outdoors. The initial idea was to have a computer that could be worn with outerwear, but DABAC and Cambium quickly realized that such a computer would have to be large, heavy and waterproof. The computer would have to be able to withstand constant jarring, being dropped and perhaps even being stepped on with muddy boots.

"The gear a logger must carry, such as his saw, is already heavy," says Gross, adding, "We decided to look for a small handheld that could be worn inside a jacket." DABAC and Cambium decided on HP's IPAQ, running the Microsoft Pocket PC operating system for all handhelds in the system.

Finally, there was some concern about removing the nail tag at the wood processing plant. Trials, however, showed that when the end of a trunk with an embedded tag was sawed away to create a level working surface, the cut-off piece could be treated with high heat to melt the nail, or ground to a pulp, which could then be used to make low-quality wood-based products.

"Right now, it would cost much more to pull the nails out than the amount that could be saved by reusing the tags. That would be a whole separate project—to find out how to recover the nails," said Gross.

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