Speakers at the Scottish Forest Industries Cluster (SFIC) Conference in Glasgow covered the bases, from timber growing and processing, to marketing, finance and the impact on the sector of latest national and EU government initiatives.

Addressing the 150-strong audience at the Glasgow event last month, keynote speaker Helen Eadie MSP, convenor of the newly established Cross Party Group on Sustainable Forests and Forest Products, said the Cluster had made big advances in timber transport, research, education and in wood-fuel initiatives. With a plentiful supply of timber available and the rapidly expanding level of innovation, industry was in a good position to help address the big national and global issues, such as the current shortage of low cost sustainable housing – and climate change.

Confederation of Forest Industries (ConFor) chairman Tom Bruce Jones told the conference that it was imperative for the industry to speak with one voice, adding that ConFor is focusing its attention on three issues: growing the market, influencing government at national, UK and European level, and providing services to members.

Colin Williamson, of Scottish Enterprise expressed enthusiasm for the new partnership opportunities offered through ConFor and paid tribute to the role that its predecessor, the Forest Industries Development Council, had played as industry partner during the SFIC’s first four years.

Three regional clusters have now been set up in Scotland and are beginning to draw industry together at a more local level. Other reports on Cluster work included the Timber Transport Forum (which has won extra government funding of £13m), the eBusiness Forum, investment, and research into value-added opportunities.

Guest speaker Martin Lowery, chief executive of Ireland’s Coillte, told delegates about the varied joint ventures his organisation has undertaken in strand board production, the Irish Forestry Unit Trust, the construction of low energy housing, and wind energy. He said that partnerships brought access to technical expertise and the associated management skills, entrepreneurial drive, risk sharing, and new markets and funding. But he also stressed the importance of a good basic business plan, a sound control structure and good management.

Broadleaf restoration

David Jenkins, director of Coed Cymru, described its work in restoring the fortunes of the broadleaf woodlands in Wales. Such woodlands could only survive if their output was marketable and so a strategy had been devised to develop a range of products using poor quality, small diameter hardwoods. These include furniture, wood-fuel products made on modified animal feed pellet machines, beech floor tiles manufactured using new heat treatment and drying processes, birch wood laminates, cladding from sweet chestnut and green oak and animal bedding chips from slab-wood.

Dieter Lechner of the Association of Austrian Wood Industries gave the conference a European perspective, telling delegates that the combined EU woodworking industry has a turnover of €154bn, with the new member states adding a further €9.5bn. Employment is estimated at 2.68 million. However, the industry consists mainly of small to medium-sized enterprises – around 100,000 registered companies in the EU15 sector alone.

Mr Lechner said that the Roadmap 2010 programme, led by the European timber industry organisation CEI-Bois, aimed to make timber Europe’s premier manufacturing and construction material in five years’ time. The initiative is on track, including lobbying, promotion, R&D and ‘competence’ building, and he urged the UK woodworking industries to back it. The Roadmap’s “living and building with wood” promotional and educational push was complete and effort is now focusing on the sustainability of wood, packaging and transport.

Jeremy Wall of the European Commission’s Forest-based Industries Unit said his organisation had conducted an analysis of forest-based industries’ competitiveness, which concluded that the sector still suffered from fragmented structure, poor communications, lack of coherent strategies, low investment and inadequate training. The Roadmap 2010 and other initiatives, like the Forest-based Industries Technology Platform, were going to be crucial in tackling these issues, said Mr Wall.

Focusing on immediate market prospects Clive Suckling of Pricewaterhouse Coopers’ said that key factors currently affecting business are the weak dollar and the strength of prices in North America compared with the oversupply-depressed situation in Europe (a problem exacerbated by the recent windblow in Sweden).

Ian Forshaw, head of policy and business development at the Forestry Commission Scotland, tackled industry education, outlining the results of the recent consultation on research priorities. These include the effects of climate change, silvicultural systems, forestry’s contribution to sustainability, prediction of and response to catastrophic events, timber engineering and the perennial topics of education, recreation, timber quality, supply chain, transport and IT.

Professor Ute Seeling, the newly appointed director of the £1.2m Strategic Integrated Research in Timber project (SIRT) at the Centre for Timber Engineering (CTE), Napier University, explained that its aim was to promote the use of Scottish timber through research, innovation and education. With the co-operation of associated UK universities, the Forestry Commission and other research bodies, research topics would include log pre-selection, determination of internal characteristics and strength/bending relationships. Alternative heat treatment regimes are also being investigated and the possibilities for partnerships in these research topics are being sought from UK and international organisations.

Robert Rippengal, commercial director of Econergy Ltd, gave delegates an insight into latest developments in the wood heat market. He said that, with the inevitable move away from conventional hydrocarbon-based heat sources, the timber sector has an excellent opportunity develop its fuel business. But while the industry is competitive on cost in this developing market, he warned, it still lacks funding support.

Construction opportunities

Brian Woodley, chief executive, of the UK Timber Frame Association, highlighted the opportunities for wood in construction. The fact that about 50% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions come from construction and use of buildings, he said, has led to a unified approach to promote and encourage sustainable construction from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of Trade & Industry. This, combined with growing interest in off-site construction, and the urgent need for more affordable housing, were creating excellent prospects for timber frame housing to increase its market share.

The creation by government of the Sustainable Buildings Group, which includes a range of industry representatives and the integration of sustainability criteria into Building Regulations, were further positive developments for wood. But Mr Woodley warned that the timber industry still needs to strengthen its promotional and marketing effort to match the efforts of producers and users of the key competing materials, steel and concrete.