Compiled by Benjamin Brits

The explosion of technological advances has resulted in a fundamental shift and transformation of the human experience through new-age requirements and concept design.

From forestry onwards safety, improving productivity and getting workers out of the ‘danger zone’ has been a major push for international forestry managers, forest owners, logging contractors and equipment suppliers, to modify their wood harvesting and processing operations over the past few years.

Another major driver to increased mechanisation internationally has been the skilled machine operator shortages that many forestry companies are now currently facing. The ultimate goal of the world industry is to have ‘no worker on the slope, or no hand on the chainsaw’.

Technology development and the pace of change over the last couple of years, in keeping with other industries, has been rapid and exciting for the industry. Recent research suggests that in 2019, as many as 35% of leading organisations will explore the use of robots to automate operations. The timber industry isn’t any different. In fact, the switch is already underway in many overseas countries.

Robotics and automation

Forestry contractors abroad, in conjunction with local engineering companies, have really led the charge.

Many processing and manufacturing facilities have used some kind of robotics and automation for many years already. Credit: Robotic Technologies

Firstly, a myriad of new designs and operations, including vision systems for remote operation of equipment, have been introduced to extract wood safely off steeper slopes. More recently, tele-operation of wood extraction has successfully been trialled in New Zealand where the operator is sitting separately and away from the felling and log extraction operations. They would be sitting in an operator’s cabin (on or off site) with live video and audio feedback from the machine being transmitted back to the operator. The console with joysticks and pedals (similar to a gaming setup) is a replica of the layout in the machinery.

In addition to improving worker safety, this remote controlled felling technique will change how wood harvesting is undertaken on steeper terrains. This opportunity also affords the maximum available space to be used for plantations as risk through safety and control is greatly reduced.

Having a similar impact on the wood supply chain are the rapid advances being made in loading and transporting of wood. Like remote felling, virtual reality goggles have been introduced where operators can now work log loading cranes remotely in the relative safety of the truck cab. The objective, like remote felling is to develop the technology so that the operator is out of the truck and operating the crane remotely from a distance.

“Advancements in robotics and automation for forestry companies, everything from planting, silviculture, wood harvesting, extracting the wood from the forest site and transporting logs to the ports or processing plant are moving at a fast pace,” says Grant Dodson, chairperson of the Southern Wood Council (SWC).

There are some clear near-future opportunities, including operating extraction machines such as skidders and forwarders without an operator. This will not only increase efficiency, but allow good operators to work on more complex machines, and provide a unique opportunity for the way new equipment is designed leading to the possibility of more intricate work on sites.

Advanced robotic systems are already commonplace in controlled workspaces such as factories. The future of wood harvesting and processing systems is most certainly going to include the robotic element.

Almost everything we experience, from jet engines to life-like movie monsters, were made by man or machine. And through the use of cutting-edge technologies,

Remote tree felling on mountain slopes has been trialled in New Zealand with good success. Credit: New Zealand Government

we can always find the exciting seeds of a future world waiting in the wings of digital innovation.

Within South Africa, innovation in design-thinking has evolved across numerous industries. From the film industry, right through to the art of architecture, South Africans are truly making their mark and leaving a lasting global impression for future generations to come.

Modifying professional spaces

Technology design not only elevates our personal experience, but also alters our professional experience. Within South Africa, we are already seeing the rise of co-working zones occupied by rising start-ups and smaller work spaces to accommodate the requirement of a flexible workforce and the gig economy.

The constant technology advances throughout the world are being developed for this very purpose and companies and industry will require to keep up with these advances. Society expands at rapid rates annually and it is therefore only logically to expect that technology and design will move together to cater to ‘more, faster and better’ ways required to fulfil needs.

Reaching new dimensions

Virtual reality is taking design, conceptualisation and training to unchartered territory. Credit: Autodesk

Digitised design is not only changing the professional and personal human realm, but it also creating a new dimension altogether. For anyone that has tried on a virtual reality headset, you will be familiar with how the feeling differs in comparison to the traditional 3D experience. VR has the potential to shift entire industries.

Take the field of architecture as an example. VR can be used as a tool to help clients understand complex designs in a more intuitive way than blueprints or miniature models. Today, with one click, you can easily jump from a 3D model to an immersive environment thanks to the convergence of the industries and technologies. We are essentially bringing gaming technologies into the real world and we can expect to see more of this technology flowing into industry to find better and safer ways for us to do business.

The power of VR is also being used in many other industries from mining, water management, construction and equipment development. Mechanics or technicians are able to see the inner mechanics of engines or infrastructure sets, all aiding in the progress towards automation.

The future of making is already here. With today’s technologies, advances in 3D printing, existing robotics capabilities and powered by the creativity of manufacturers, builders and makers of things, we are now able to design and make just about anything in any sector. An exciting era is upon us.



Southern Wood Council
Autodesk Africa