Peek A Boo A Google Street View For Forests

New apps and special cameras could revolutionize the lumber industry, provided dealers and mills embrace the new measuring method.
Cameras to capture the woods: Dralle technologies measure lumber piles.

Christian Stuhlmann's off-road vehicles look like Google's Street View vans and, to some groups, are just as controversial. Special cameras mounted on their roofs are used to take pictures not of streets but of tree trunks.

Mr. Stuhlmann is the German regional manager for Dralle. The Danish company has developed a digital technology for the forestry and lumber industry, which, despite its relatively low profile, employs 1.2 million people – more than the German automobile industry.

Dralle's camera-equipped off-road vehicles are designed to simplify the work of many forest managers. The technology allows them to measure a stack of tree trunks five meters (16.4 feet) long and three meters high within just three minutes. "That normally takes 20 minutes," Mr. Stuhlmann said.

Measuring a woodpile using the traditional method begins with marking the measuring points with a can of spray paint, "a process that consumes two cans of paint, at €8 apiece," he said. Then foresters and lumber dealers take two-to-three-meter measuring sticks and climb up onto the stacks of logs to measure the diameters of selected logs with a gauge known as a cruising rod.

The new method is the biggest technical innovation in forestry and the lumber industry in a long time. Lutz Freytag, Lumber purchaser

Dalle's digital technology allows logs to be measured in bad weather and, thanks to the built-in LED flash, in the dark as well. In fact, measurements taken in the dark are more accurate, because of the stronger contrast between the logs and the dark background.

Most importantly, measurements, photos and locations are stored in a database and linked to map data, making the process vastly more effective than the conventional manual method.

The new method is "the biggest technical innovation in forestry and the lumber industry in a long time," said Lutz Freytag, who runs lumber purchasing operations for the German government's 350,000 hectares (865,000 acres) of state-owned forest. For the first time, forestry data is now available in digital form and can be used in all logistical and commercial processes.

But the advantages are also a problem for Dralle in Germany. "Our system is too transparent and accurate for many in the industry," Mr. Stuhlmann said.

Denny Ohnesorge, managing director of the German Lumber Industry Trade Association, questions its reliability. "If companies use these methods commercially, they are breaking the law," he said, noting that the technology is not calibrated or approved. Consequently, lumber buyers remain hesitant to use it.

Although precise laser technology is used in sawmills, it is customary to round off each individual diameter and overall results.

This could change as a result of Germany's new Weights and Measures Act, which went into effect on January 1. The new regulations serve as the basis for testing and approving photographic measurement. Experts, however, have been grappling with the specifics of how to apply the new rules. Minor details, such as permissible error tolerance thresholds, could affect the licensing of new technologies.

Some groups aren't waiting. The technology is especially popular among the managers of state-owned forests in Bavaria, Thuringia and Brandenburg, where Dralle currently has 12 vehicles in operation.

Yet they remain the exception.  Forest owners believe there is a financial reason behind the effort by lumber buyers to prevent the use of photo-optical measurement.

"In the past, it has been very difficult to accurately measure lumber quantities," Mr. Freytag said, pointing to the wiggle room factored into the way some lumber customers and sawmills do business. "Some lumber dealers derive their profits from measuring inaccuracies instead of price," he added, noting that lumber measurements are often 3 to 5 percent short of actual quantities.

In addition, lumber buyers want to retain control over pricing, because tree trunks that are processed into planks are currently measured at sawmills.

"It's as if I were to buy meat from the butcher, weigh it at home and then pay him based on the results," said Markus Ziegeler, managing director of the German Forestry Council, which represents the interests of forest owners. Although precise laser technology is used in sawmills, it is customary to round off each individual diameter and overall results, he added.

Conversion factors are a popular vehicle for deceptive pricing. Markus Ziegeler, Managing director of the German Forestry Council

The effects of inaccurate measurement are even more apparent with logs, which are purchased by volume and then processed into products such as particleboard and paper. In this market, the volume tends to be determined on the basis of negotiating skill rather than measuring accuracy.

According to Mr. Ohnesorge, prices per cubic meter are often set in advance in master agreements. Then buyers and sellers inspect and measure the stacks of logs together. Depending on factors such as quality and degree of moisture, it is common practice to agree on an adjustment of quantities. The so-called "shake factor," which is used to estimate how crooked tree trunks are and the amount of empty space between them, provides a certain degree of leeway.

"These conversion factors are a popular vehicle for deceptive pricing," Mr. Ziegeler said. As a result, buyers and sellers agree to prices per cubic meter that seem attractive at first glance but, as a result of these quantity adjustments, can be disadvantageous for some wood sellers. "It reduces transparency, especially for small forest owners," he added.

The new technologies can provide more transparency. The providers of these technologies are not eliminating the shake factor. In fact, their methods also measure lumber density and empty space. "In hindsight, it makes everything more comprehensible," said Dralle manager Stuhlmann.


This text first appeared in the business magazine Wirtschaftswoche. To contact the author:

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