Leading North American wood manufacturer levels up with Prism
Besse Forest Products Group (BFPG) makes a variety of quality wood products that are used worldwide. The family-run business was founded in 1966 and today runs six manufacturing facilities in Michigan and Wisconsin that produce a long list of top-notch products, including hardwood veneer, lumber, specialty plywood for cabinets, doors, flooring, furniture, industrial pallets, millwork, musical instruments, railroad ties, sporting goods, wall panels, and windows. It takes a lot of wood, and a lot of different grades and species, to keep those facilities running at full steam. BFPG employs professional procurement foresters to ensure each facility gets the right type and amount of wood at the right time.
Andy Van Dyke is the Director of Standing Timber for BFPG and oversees purchases of the timber sales that supply the company’s array of manufacturing facilities. He has his finger on the pulse of trees going up for bid in Michigan and Wisconsin, whether that’s by the state government, US Forest Service, or private landowners. His job is to figure out the value of the wood on offer before bidding on the sale. The big-picture goal is for BFPG to hit the sweet spot between outbidding competitors while also driving as much profit as possible.
“That’s what it all comes down to: what’s the true value going to be on the sale when it gets cut,” Van Dyke said.
Timber cruising, the process by which foresters sample a representative area of the forest to build an accurate picture of the whole forest, is the primary means for determining the value of the wood and the cost to extract it. Up until early 2020, Van Dyke and his team were using rudimentary data collection devices that relied on a mishmash of different operating systems to cruise timber sales. “It was a pretty simple program with no real user interface running on old hardware. It was more like a big calculator.”
Most of the old devices had a serial port that plugged into a specialized printer to access the data collected in the field. The workflow involved manual data entry at several stages and officially became obsolete after the hardware company stopped production on the printer and no longer supported repairs on the handheld devices. It was time to level up and Van Dyke knew where to go. He had stayed in touch with Kevin Lim, CEO and founder of Lim Geomatics, since the two met at an ESRI User Conference several years ago. Van Dyke was aware that Lim Geomatics had been working with a forestry company to develop Prism, a new data collection and reporting application designed to meet the rigorous fieldwork demands of timber cruising.
“It was really a no-brainer that it was going to be a good solution for us,” Van Dyke said. They purchased their first license for Prism in February of 2020 and acquired a second in July to help with the cruising and silviculture activities carried out by Superior Woodlands Company, the forestland management division of BFPG.
ANALYSIS AND RESULTS
Van Dyke anticipated that Prism was going to improve the efficiency and data quality of timber cruising at BFPG, but he was still surprised by just how big a difference the digital tool made for his workflow and the company.
“I can probably cruise 15 to 20 percent more plots each day using Prism,” he said. It depends on the type of timber and other conditions in the field, but Van Dyke can now work through 5 to 10 more plots every day with Prism versus the old system. And that number is only increasing as Prism becomes part of the new routine. He recently worked through 39 plots in a single day with Prism, which represents a 56 percent gain in efficiency over the old system, whereby 25 plots were considered a productive day in the field.
The forester estimated that it costs BFPG roughly $800 USD for the labour and travel required for a day of cruising. The average cruise area for a timber sale is 150 acres, which takes one forester two days to work through the sample plots. If we take the conservative estimate of a 15 percent efficiency gain with Prism over the old system that translates into a cost savings of $240 per cruise. And the day Van Dyke worked through those 39 plots, Prism saved BFPG $896. Those savings rise fast when you consider that Van Dyke cruises around 4,000 acres per year.
“All the little time savings that come with the program really add up at the end of the day,” Van Dyke said. He described how Prism’s flexibility and configurability are what account for the dramatic gain in efficiency when you’re out in the forest.
Van Dyke first designs a cruise using the web application in the office and configures what values will be available to select when entering measurements in the field. So when he is out in the forest, he can select characteristics from this pre-determined list versus typing out the entire number or description. “The mobile app does a good job minimizing the amount of clicks you need to do with the stylus or your fingers,” Van Dyke said. “Like four taps per tree and you’re done.”
Prism’s configurability reduces how much Van Dyke must interact with his tablet in the field and cuts down on the distance he needs to travel when collecting data in a sample plot. Unlike other cruising applications, Prism allows you to enter data points on however many trees you want, when you want. You don’t have to stick to completing the profile of one tree before moving on to the next.
“The ability to add multiple rows of incomplete data and then come back and change them as you walk throughout the plot is a major advantage,” Van Dyke said. “You can spend more time out in the plot measuring trees rather than going back and forth from plot centre to see if a tree is in or out.”
Prism also harnesses the tablet’s internal GPS capability so it comes equipped with built-in navigation and plot proximity notifications. This means foresters and can find the plot centre with Prism even when working in a remote and offline environment. Foresters only need one device when working with this rugged application from Lim Geomatics. They don’t have to switch back and forth between entering data and then marking off an area on their cellphone or a paper map.
Prism was also designed with a two-way synchronization feature so foresters can transmit data from the forest to the office and the office to the forest with a click of a button when connected to a cellular network or wifi. “After a day of cruising, I just hit sync and then it automatically pushes it out there,” Van Dyke said. “All the plots that I’ve done show that they’re done and any that I didn’t get done, show as incomplete.” He described how this feature is especially helpful when you have a team of foresters working a cruise together. Everyone knows what plots have been done and which ones are left to do without resorting to hand drawing over paper maps. “You can see what plots are done, who did them, what time, all that kind of stuff,” he said.
Van Dyke said that Prism has increased the efficiency of data management by 50 percent. The workflow from the old system took at least an hour and the new digital tool and workflow has cut that down by half. Prism has also reduced how much data is entered manually, which translates to fewer errors and improved overall data quality. And this is only the beginning.
BFPG has a three-step workflow for processing cruise data so they can arrive at a reliable value for what to bid on a timber sale. Prism has replaced the old data collection hardware and the first step in the data processing workflow. Van Dyke said he anticipates that the application will also take over the second step of their financial modeling workflow. “Right now 75 percent of the data is in Prism, whereas maybe in six months from now that might be 90 percent,” he said. Prism comes stocked with configurable equations so users can also calculate important variables such as merchantable volume or stumpage value.
Van Dyke concluded with high hopes for the new tool, “the real test will be if Prism doesn’t freeze this February when I’m belt deep in the Peshekee River.”
Prism has delivered dramatic gains in efficiency, both in the forest and the office, and improved the overall quality of data gathered during cruises for BFPG.
– 15 to 56 percent increased efficiency of cruise, depending on type of timber and conditions in the field
– $240 to $896 USD cost savings per day of cruising with one unit of Prism
– Cost savings of Prism efficiency gains extrapolated over a year: $6,401 to $23,896.32 per cruiser
– 50 percent increased efficiency of data transfer and processing workflow in the office
– Significant reduction of manual data entry, which leads to increased data quality
– Elimination of manual record keeping in the field
– Improve efficiency and coordination of teams working in the field.
Prism was developed in consultation with veteran foresters to ensure it meets the demands of timber cruising and other data collection workflows required to successfully manage any forest type. BFPG manufactures a diverse and high-quality array of wood products and so the company’s foresters need to generate a granular picture of what wood is in the forest prior to making any timber lot purchase.
Van Dyke is sourcing upwards of 50 different grades of logs to buy for the company’s 6 manufacturing facilities. This means that when he is out in the forest doing a cruise, he is assessing an immense variety of logs, some might be worth as much as $1,000 USD each, while others are $15. “If you’re not breaking the timber apart by grade and species when you’re looking at a financial bid, you’re not able to be competitive,” he said.
The flexibility, configurability, and modern and intuitive interface of Prism has allowed Van Dyke to generate more accurate values of timber sales, which are a key factor in driving the profitability and success of one of the largest privately owned producers of hardwood veneer, lumber, and specialty plywood in North America.