From tree to board – on the digital transformation in the forestry and timber industry

Trees and technology – the forestry industry is also digitalising. The BFH is promoting the digital transformation in the forestry and timber industry with the “Forest & Wood 4.0 Platform” project. BFH expert Norbert Winterberg explains in his overview how the researchers are supporting small and micro enterprises in this process.

Of course, digitalisation has also arrived in the forestry and timber sector. And it is a major challenge. As in other sectors, there are companies that are already taking advantage of the opportunities offered by these new technologies, both for process optimisation and for adapting business models. These are often companies that have the necessary resources – financial and human capital. However, the engagement with digitalisation still varies greatly in the forestry and timber sector, which is closely linked to traditional crafts. Apart from the peculiarities of the wood value network compared to other materials, this also has to do with the fact that the sector is highly fragmented. The majority of businesses are so-called micro and small enterprises – businesses that employ between less than 10 and just under 50 employees.

The wood industry: between traditional craftsmanship…… and digital technologies.

It seems a given that at some point all companies, regardless of their size, will be affected by the digital transformation. Therefore, all companies will have to review their strategies against the background of the digital transformation and adapt them if necessary. Some will invest heavily in and then pursue a growth strategy to make the investments profitable. Others will position themselves in a niche market or specialise in certain work steps such as assembly. Whatever strategy a business chooses, it is a matter of making conscious decisions. For this, a systematic examination of the topic is imperative. Opportunities and risks must be weighed up carefully. This is where the “Forest & Wood 4.0 Platform” comes in: The aim is to promote the digital transformation of the entire wood value chain. From the forest to the end product. This is why the Departments of Architecture, Wood and Construction BFH-AHB and the School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences BFH-HAFL are working together on this project.

The activities described below follow on from the “Forest & Wood 4.0 Initiative” project. Like its predecessor project, the “Forest & Wood 4.0 Platform” brings together all the important business associations – from forestry to furniture manufacturers. Again, numerous partner companies from the forestry and timber industry, the software sector and machinery and equipment manufacturers are envisaged.

Barriers as a starting point

The activities of the “Forest & Wood 4.0 Platform” were developed on the basis of a detailed analysis of the barriers that are particularly obstructive to digitalisation in the sector. The more than 160 identified barriers were bundled into 11 barrier fields. A survey at the kick-off event in September 2022 with around 100 participants reflected the often prevailing picture: the top three barrier fields were resources, corporate culture and know-how. Only in fourth and fifth place came technical barriers. Accordingly, the activities with which the industry is to be supported in digitalisation were distributed along two axes for the project.

  1. The first axis pursues the goal of making it easier for companies in the forestry and timber industry to systematically deal with the digital transformation so that they can review their strategy and adapt it if necessary. To this end, a strategy process is being developed with suitable instruments that take into account the current level of digitalisation of the companies. It will be possible to use it in a modular way for businesses that are at the beginning of the process as well as for advanced users.
  2. With the second axis, solution approaches are being developed for selected transformation barriers that are relevant for the wood sector. Eleven focal topics are currently planned, which are derived from the analysis of the transformation barriers and which will be worked on together with partner companies in specific working groups.
    These priority topics can be divided into three groups:
      • Company-focused topics: The three designated topics relate to the development of the indi vidual companies, for example “Range-related digitalisation potential”. In these groups, the companies receive tools that enable them to deepen their strategy in this specific area.
      • Cross-company topics: These four topics cannot be solved by one company alone. For example, “Systematised digital building blocks and interfaces”, a topic that strongly involves the software and machinery sectors. The goal is the joint development of elements that benefit a whole group of companies or the industry in general. Due to the size of the companies in the sector, the resources of a single company are not sufficient to enable these developments.
      • Forest and wood resources: This group addresses four topics related to the forest, for example “Building digital transformation competences in the forest sector”.

About the platform

The “Forest & Wood 4.0 Platform” is an interactive platform between economic actors and the BFH. It is based on personal dialogue and cooperation on the one hand, and on the exchange of information and tools via an electronic platform on the other. The website will be expanded to include sector-specific information and tools to support companies in their strategic development. In addition, the website will offer partner companies their own area for exchange within the group and with the other working groups.

Institute for Digital Construction and Wood Industry IdBH

This article appeared in Spirit, the magazine of the technical disciplines at BFH.

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AUTHOR: Norbert Winterberg

Norbert Winterberg is Professor of Management and Market Research at the Department of Architecture, Wood and Construction at BFH. He heads the Institute for Digital Construction and Wood Industry IdBH and the Management and Market Research competence area.

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