FPInnovations Blog — No one has been left untouched by the COVID-19 pandemic. Regardless of the negative feelings, you are probably harbouring towards the virus, it is undeniable that it’s been a catalyst for change. The pandemic has prompted the forestry industry to rethink its ways and accelerate its evolution.

We sat with Denis Cormier, Vice President, Research Operations at FPInnovations, to learn more about the accelerated evolution of the forest industry and about FPInnovations’ role in this transformation.

Where is the forestry industry heading now?

The whole sector is currently struggling amid COVID-19. The pandemic is bringing lots of uncertainty, not only to the forest industry but also to the workers, families, and communities depending on it.

As much as the interconnectivity of Canada’s forest sector is central to its success, it can also become a limitation. To give you an example: the lumber market conditions are currently unfavorable, which led to the shutting down of many sawmills, which has in turn affected the downstream chip supply of pulp mills.

In the short term, the industry will continue applying cashflow protection strategies, delaying significant capital expenditures, and lowering their research and development investments.

Despite these survival behaviors, the industry will strive by identifying sustainable growth opportunities. Predictions suggest that the post-COVID era will provide good conditions for a low-carbon economy. The sector will then be well-positioned to capture emerging opportunities such as the replacement of single-use plastics as well as greater interest in environmentally friendly construction.

What is FPInnovations’ role in the transformation of the forestry industry?

Our mission is to accelerate the growth and transformation of the forest sector by:

  • Creating new market opportunities
  • Identifying, developing, and deploying innovation

We’re also enhancing the forest sector’s competitiveness by:

  • Offering access to technical expertise
  • Driving excellence in operations and products
  • Supporting common good efforts

In the post-COVID recovery phase, a.k.a. the “new normal”, factors such as increased competitiveness, lowered risk, and sped up delivery times are now even more critical to survival, which is why we’re focusing on providing mill support and short-term accelerated applied R & D.

What is FPInnovations focusing on right now?

To adapt to the forest industry transformation, FPInnovations had to quickly transform itself. The new FPInnovations will still measure its success through real impact within the industry, but our efforts are now more focused, and our support is being delivered quicker by teams with strong technical leadership.

We’re focusing on:

  • Providing impactful and rapid delivery to our members
  • Fast prototyping for de-risking new ideas
  • Accelerating new project outcomes by involving commercialization partners in large initiatives

How do you foresee the forestry industry’s “new normal”?

This is a tough question. At the end of 2019 when people had just started talking about the COVID-19 epidemic, no one had planned for a post-pandemic new normal in their strategic foresight.

The COVID-19 pandemic is certainly accelerating the transformation of the industry, and companies will need to adapt to a new permanently-altered economic landscape. I see three important trends that will drive the post-COVID innovation pipeline in the forest sector:

  1. Digitalization to move data rather than people

Developing and implementing disruptive technologies will be necessary for the industry to succeed. New digital technologies offer major opportunities to improve productivity, reduce costs, and react quickly to market demands.

  1. Rethinking the forest products supply chain

The COVID-19 crisis has created many disruptions in highly-efficient global supply chains. Most countries are now remodeling the supply of critical products in order to become more resilient. This shift to onshoring will likely affect exportation.

The interconnectivity of our industry, its highly distributed feedstock as well as its markets that are based mainly on export make for an intricate supply chain. Balancing efficiency with resilience is key.

  1. Functional products to prevent virus transmission

We will see consumers take even greater interest in products that will be functionally designed for virus prevention. We should expect a growing interest for treatments or coatings that provide antiviral properties to wood and paper products.

Which projects have moved to the top of FPInnovations’ priority list due to the pandemic?

Here are two that fit well with the post-COVID trends I just mentioned:

  • MaskPack: A fast-prototyping project that demonstrates the potential contribution of the forest sector to the local production of face masks and bio-safe packaging
  • Digitalization: A newly created research group is leveraging efforts in other industries and seeking partnership with technology leaders to develop a digitalization platform for the sawmill sector

How did some of the day-to-day processes change at FPInnovations due to the confinement measures?

Like for most “knowledge-based” organizations, telework is the noticeable day-to-day change at FPInnovations. Telework was applied sporadically before COVID-19, and it was managed as a flexible work arrangement for employees. The confinement measures have forced the organization to embrace the concept and to make it efficient.

We also had to adapt to distancing measures in our labs. FPInnovations’ gradual reopening made it simpler as it allowed us to safely adjust our mitigation measures with a slow and gradual increase in staff density.