A Wood Product Innovation Gateway to spur the UK’s home-grown timber market is gaining footing at Napier University in Edinburgh, UK, after acquiring a European Regional Development Funding award. Ledetta Asfa-Wossen discusses the plan of action with Wood Studio Director Peter Wilson.
Q: How did Napier University’s Wood Studio funding award come about and what progress have you made so far?
The award came as a result of an application in October 2009 made under the European Regional Development Fund’s Priority 1 programme. The overall value of the award was £1.478m, of which we had to find 55% – just over 800k – from other sources. As you might imagine in these financially straitened times, coming up with this amount of match funding from industry has been no mean task and it took until late 2010 for us to be fairly assured we had assembled the necessary partners to ensure the project could proceed.
The project – now named the Wood Product Innovation Gateway – is supported not only by the European Regional Development Fund, but also by Scottish Enterprise, Forestry Commission Scotland, ConFor and Wood for Good. We now have most of the team in place and will be launching the event programme in the very near future.
Q: Is this only a Scotland initiative or does it apply to England, Wales and Northern Ireland too?
At present the European Regional Development Fund award applies to Scotland only but I would like to think that what we deliver as a result of the Wood Product Innovation Gateway could act as a model for wider application throughout the UK. Of course, the bulk of the UK’s plantation forest resource is in Scotland, but the process of identifying good ideas to improve the value of the nation’s timber resource should not be confined to only one part of the country. The Forest Products Research Institute will be looking hard at how the lessons and examples that emerge can be given much wider application. We must not forget that the rest of the UK offers a potentially valuable market for Scottish wood-based products.
Q: One of the focuses is to promote the use of home-grown timber. How do you intend to do this?
The project is all about raising the value of home-grown timber, and while initially focused on softwoods (simply because we have more of them), we anticipate a wide range of initiatives emerging from the process.
We are developing a fairly sophisticated communications plan, the main tier of which involves an extensive programme of events intended not only to disseminate information to SMEs about timber and potential areas of development, but also to use these opportunities to identify and stimulate those individuals, companies or organisations.
From this we can assess the levels of technical support required to take things forward and to examine the relevance of the various funding support mechanisms available for R&D that will allow a product, process or construction system to reach the next stage of gestation. This filtering of projects – and the intensification of technical support – will continue all the way down the line until full commercialisation is reached.
Q: The project will also help improve the understanding of timber quality. Could you tell me more about the investigations?
Beginning with Sitka spruce, the Scottish Integrated Research on Timber project explores all of the issues affecting timber quality – genetics, soil conditions, spacing, elevation, orientation, rotation, etc, in order to understand the extent of variation in the species. The results of this study – which covered plantation forests across Scotland, Northern England and Northern Ireland – will shortly be published by Forestry Commission Scotland under the tile ‘Wood properties and uses of Sitka spruce in Britain’. The information will form a significant part of the Wood Product Innovation Gateway’s dissemination programme over the next three years.
Put simply, we will work with growers and primary processors to better understand the range of issues that affect the quality of timber and to consider implementing some of the conclusions reached in order to improve future quality.
Q: How does this project differ from similar schemes?
I am not aware of any other schemes like this, but even if some exist, I am not sure they will have a comparable monoscopic focus on how to raise the value of home-grown timber and get more of it into use by the UK construction industry.
At the front of our minds at all times is the fact that the UK is the second largest importer of timber in the world, bringing more than 80% of its requirements in from abroad. Overall, the construction industry consumes some 70% of the timber used in the UK, so any inroads we can make into this market will not only help reduce the nation’s overall bill for imports, but also make a significant environmental contribution. In saying this I do not wish to suggest that the initiative will somehow create an economic nirvana for the UK’s forestry and timber sectors – this would be a presumption too far.
Q: Is it true it will involve working with more SMEs in the wood sector?
We have an ambition to reach out to at least 600 SMEs in the forestry, primary processing, timber manufacturing and construction sectors, as well as the architectural, engineering and product design professions, with a view to raising awareness of the potential of UK grown timber. [The aim is] to see how different disciplines might be brought together to develop new and competitive products capable of taking the resource we have into a much larger and more profitable arena.
The proof will be in the pudding, however – if in three years time we have not reached and supported 600 SMEs and delivered 30+ new products, processes or construction systems, it will not be for lack of trying, believe me.
For further information on the Wood Product Innovation Gateway and how to become involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org