Forests have always been a source of wellbeing for Finns, both economically and physically. Today, the forest industry accounts for 23 per cent of the country’s exports and covers far more than the traditional focuses of pulp and paper. Read: biofuels, building materials, smart packaging and even clothing. Much of this expertise has accumulates in Joensuu, the capital of Northern Karelia, 75 kilometres from Finland’s border with Russia.
“You can find the entire forestry chain here: from education and research, to machinery manufacturing and wood processing,” says Tapio Kinnunen, coordinator at the local Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment. “There is a lot of technological expertise and internationally acclaimed research. Joensuu is the Silicon Valley of the forest industry.”
This claim is backed by some impressive numbers. The city has a population of only 76 000, but hosts two universities, several research organisations – including the European Forest Institute and Natural Resources Institute Finland (LUKE) – and the world’s largest cut-to-length forestry machine factory which is run by the industry behemoth John Deere.
Most crucially it is also home to 500 other forest bioeconomy companies with a combined turnover of almost two billion euros.
A fitting example of Joensuu’s international reach is the family-owned, stock-listed company Kesla. The forest technology and machinery specialist has operated for almost 60 years and gained a vast customer network exporting over 70 per cent of its products globally.
“The EU is as big a market as Japan, Russia and North and South America,” says Mika Tahvanainen, marketing director at Kesla. “We have strong growth in South-East Asia and regions where mechanical harvesting is only starting to take off.”
In typically straightforward Finnish fashion Tahvanainen states that the company, with its 250 employees, is a small fish compared to global machinery giants. But Kesla has turned this agility into a competitive advantage. Instead of complete forestry machines, the company creates technologically advanced parts (such as harvester heads and cranes) for other manufacturers’ machinery.
This means Kesla can carry an extensive product catalogue for the entire timber harvesting and transporting chain and tailor its products based on customer needs.
“For example, we are one of the world’s biggest, if not the biggest, harvester head manufacturer whose products fit any kind of harvester base machine,” Tahvanainen explains. “All of the big machinery companies have their own base machines, but smaller manufacturers without their own harvester heads and cranes don’t necessarily want a competitor’s brand as part of their machinery. We are a neutral operator.”
Technological flexibility is also part of Kesla’s tradition of constant improvement. In 2016 the company launched the world’s first hybrid chipper, developed with LUKE, and it is on a constant lookout for how automation and digitalisation could be applied to its products.
“We will see fast changes following the generational shift in our end-users. The younger generations don’t want mechanical systems, everything needs to be digitally and electronically operated,” Tahvanainen says. “But the starting point for us is that everything has to bring added value to our customers. We aren’t digitising things just for the sake of it.”
Mapping forests globally
While digitalisation is changing forestry machinery, it is also creating entirely new companies. Finnish technology company Arbonaut is an early adopter of digital technologies and has used airborne systems for forest resources inventory since 1994.
“We provide support for operative decision making, especially regarding natural resources and property, such as railways and electricity lines,” explains Vesa Leppänen, chief technology officer at Arbonaut. “Our strength is in measuring, analysing and managing vegetation.”
The company’s early claim to fame is its ‘ArboLiDAR’ remote sensing technology. Tested in over 20 countries, the system uses airborne laser scanning to map forest resources and provide information to assist sustainable forest management. The data is visualised on 3D maps to show, for example, which part of a forest is ready for harvesting, if a tree is at a risk of falling on a train track or how biodiversity has changed in a national park.
A growing sector for Arbonaut today is climate change data. The company’s software tools can estimate carbon stock changes and model how different actions affect the biosphere over hundreds or even thousands of years. This has already been used in places like Nepal and Pakistan to develop their strategy for reducing emissions which result from deforestation and forest degradation.
“Our customer base varies from the Finnish government to US powerline companies and from the Nepalese NGOs to plantation owners in Uruguay,” says Jari Kinnunen, vice president at Arbonaut.
The company’s global appeal also can be seen in its personnel: 45 employees representing 15 different nationalities. It is one of the reasons Arbonaut has put down roots in Joensuu. Kinnunen explains that most of the company’s employees moved to the city because they were attracted to its forestry or ICT education and found a career helping take Arbonaut’s technology to the next level.
Convergence of industries
Forward drive is what characterises Joensuu’s forest industry cluster as a whole. Examples are not hard to find. Joensuu has the world’s first commercial pyrolysis oil (wood-based fuel) production plant, owned by Fortum. Next door, Stora Enso’s Enocell mill is among the pioneers in turning birch into raw material for the textile industry and Mantsinen Group is a ground-breaker in the development of energy-efficient material handlers.
And this is just the start. Researchers in Joensuu are hard at work to find new ways to use renewable wood-based raw materials across industries ranging from energy to medicine. In particular a great deal of expectation will be placed on photonics (the science of light), which uses lasers and sensors to increase the efficiency of forest industry machinery and processes.
“Traditional forest engineering, nanotechnology, photonics and ICT all have areas of confluence which are being combined in new ways,” says Tapio Kinnunen. “Furthermore, the amount of information moving across the entire wood processing chain grows constantly. I can’t even guess where this will lead, but the changes have already started.”