A 2006 paper “Technology and the Competitiveness of the Wood Products Sector in B.C.” by Thomas Maness describes the results of a workshop involving representatives from industry and universities.
The participants used a detailed analysis to look at key financial and operating data (from logs, commodity lumber, veneer, chips, pulp, paper, structural panels and other value added products) to compare B.C. and Canada’s forest industries with global wood industries.
Canada’s competitiveness in the wood products sector has been based historically on abundance and quality and low cost of its raw materials.
Since the mid-1990s the Canadian pulp and paper mills have been outclassed by the more modern mills in the USA and other countries. With newer technology including faster machines and wider presses there is less need for market pulp blended from the more superior northern softwoods.
Another example is a new multimillion-dollar plant in Brazil. This-state-of-the-art plant uses genetically improved eucalyptus to produce a high quality paper. The raw material grows in plantations a short distance from the mill and attains a production rate of 50 m3/ha/yr on a seven-year rotation. This is contrasted to a growth rate on our natural stands of 1.9 m3/ha/yr.
The competitiveness of the pulp plants impacts the lumber industry in that the latter relies on the byproduct of chips to help make the lumber production competitive.
One important question is should we replace the outdated pulp mills with larger super mills like the Brazilian one or smaller value added mills that make the best use of our unique, slower growing forests. It appears that the smaller value added mills may be the best option. The cheap hydro electric power in B.C. will no doubt help our existing or upgraded pulp mills to stay competitive.
Up to the mid-1990s higher lumber prices were paid for larger dimension lumber (2×10). Canada and in particular B.C. had a significant number of large trees to produce the higher value lumber. With the invention and acceptance of structural beam and timber strand products the premium of the larger dimension lumber is now much less. In the lumber industry, most of the recent technological innovations have been targeted at improving volumetric product recovery. As a result the lumber recovery factor has steadily increased in the past 15 years even though the average piece size has declined. Unfortunately this new technology is also available to our competitors who often have cheaper and more abundant raw materials as well as lower labour costs.
Canada needs to move from a resource-based industry based on extraction to one based on innovation and adding value to customers. Sweden was able to successfully offset the disadvantages of high raw material and labour costs by investing in technology and value added manufacturing. The knowledge gained through the development of the forest products sector was translated into other high tech business.
Jim Hilton is a professional agrologist and forester who has lived and worked in the Cariboo Chilcotin for the past 40 years. Now retired, Hilton still volunteers his skills with local community forests organizations.