Not Out of the Woods yet: A Reflection on Last Year’s Timber Shortage and the Importance of Quality Screening

You may remember that for much of last year, Australia was experiencing a serious timber shortage.

Wood prices skyrocketed because there wasn’t enough of it – leading some to call for the Federal Government to extend their home-building assistance program.

In some cases, supply chain delays for some products were as long as 26 weeks due to the shortage of timber.

Due to the global timber shortage, there were major delays and soaring costs in the building supply chain.

While the crisis has subsided for now, there are some vital lessons to be learnt if you want to have the best chance of remaining profitable if a similar crisis happens again.

What Caused The Timber Shortage?

Several mill closures, shrinking pine plantations and devastating bushfires all contributed to the timber shortage in Australia.

The Morrison government’s Homebuilder program was also more successful than expected – with the resulting rise in demand for timber further straining supply lines.

Due to many countries using construction as an economic stimulus, materials were in high demand globally. 

A strong US housing market, for example, placed pressure on the global supply chain, with the shortage lasting several months.

At the start of 2021, one-fifth of construction timber was imported to Australia. But spot timber prices increased 400% in the US. As a result, international traders sent their entire supplies to the US.

The Suez Canal blockage has also caused shipping costs to rise and created major delays.

In response, domestic timber production increased by 17%, but it still wasn’t enough to meet demand.

What Did The Timber Shortage Mean For Quality Control?

Framing pine was severely lacking across the country – in particular longer lengths, which became very scarce. 

Due to the scarcity of this product, suppliers generally charged resellers more per linear metre for longer lengths. 

Certain types of pine also became limited, such as Radiata Pine frames, and suppliers offered Baltic Pine alternatives.

The Australian Timber Importers Federation convened with a number of northern hemisphere suppliers, in particular from Sweden, Lithuania, Russia and Canada.

Phillip Screpis, owner of Blacktown Building Supplies, turned to sourcing timber from Russia to meet the demand.

“I am saying more no’s than yes’ because of supply. It’s pointless for me to say yes I can do this but I can’t supply you for another three or four months,” Mr Screpis told 9News.

“At the moment when push comes to shove… what do you do?”

With so much timber coming into Australia from Russia, China and other countries, it was vital to be able to determine both the proper value and quality of the material.

Importers like Mr Screpis were able to secure these alternate channels, but determining if the timber they were being supplied with was good quality or not required an edge – and that edge was fast and accurate hyperspectral imaging technology.

The Best Screening Tool For Timber Quality

In wood sciences, hyperspectral imaging is used to assess wood characteristics, chemical composition, mechanical properties, wood modifications, moisture content, and decay.

Nano hyperspec
Headwall Photonics – Spectral Imaging

Wood hardness, shrinkage, and anisotropy are strongly correlated with wood density and microfibril angle. This makes it imperative to understand how these values vary spatially. 

Hyperspec Nano

Headwall’s Nano-Hyperspec® is a completely integrated hyperspectral sensor designed for the VNIR (400-1000nm) spectral range.

A completely integrated lightweight (<0.52kg) VNIR hyperspectral sensor includes on-board data-processing/storage and GPS/IMU. 

A key advantage of Nano-Hyperspec is that it also includes 480GB of on-board data collection/storage, plus attached GPS/IMU functionality. When attached to a payload bay, a UAV can be optimised for other needs such as video or thermal imaging.

How To Apply The HyperSpec Nano

What becomes visible to a hyperspectral sensor between 400 and 1000nm can include the presence of disease conditions on a tree canopy where it otherwise might be invisible from below. This is especially important as Australia ramps up its forestry and timber production.

Measuring the heights of trees before (top) and after (bottom) Hurricane Maria. These two slices come from Humacao in eastern Puerto Rico, just north of where the hurricane made landfall. Credit: Vivian Griffey / Headwall

Natural wood is composed of cellulose, hemicellulose, lignin, sap, extractives, and organic compounds. In living trees, axial tracheids are the main components that conduct water and provide support. 

Softwoods form early-wood in the spring, consisting of wide and thin-walled tracheids, and thicker late-wood tracheids with smaller cell diameters later in the year. 

There are small chemical differences between early and late-wood. For example, early-wood is known to contain higher levels of lignin than later-wood.

Using complex hyperspectral imaging, the real quality of timber can be better determined. This matters when the material is being used to support frames in homes, for example.

Most wood and timber products are tested in tension, compression, and flexure to determine their ultimate or breaking strength. 

Construction, furniture, and consumer goods are the most common industries that use wood products that undergo mechanical testing.

However, having a hyperspectral imaging tool is faster and more convenient, while offering accurate results on the chemical makeup and inherent quality of the timber in question.

So what’s the main Lesson in hindsight?

Scarcity causes desperation – and desperation led to the Australian market being flooded with cheap material. While this was a necessary measure, for importers without the appropriate hyperspectral imaging tools, quality control became a huge issue.

If Australia faces another timber shortage you want to be well prepared, because just like in last year, you never know when a crisis could emerge again.

Related Link

Science Goes Bush: An Overview Of Hyperspectral Remote Sensing

Speak to PAS today for expert guidance on hyperspectral imaging options from Headwall Photonics.

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