July 11, 2005
Improved Process of Drying Lumber May Save Millions
Watching lumber dry may be as boring as watching paint dry, but soon, the amount of time needed to dry a piece of wood might decrease dramatically, according to Penn State forest resources expert.
Charles Ray, assistant professor of forest resources, devised a process potentially to decrease the amount of time it takes to dry wood products, by combining traditional drying techniques with more modern ones. This process lowers the amount of time needed to dry lumber.
"A computer would essentially read the environment in the kiln for this to work," said the Penn State researcher, who has published a paper on the process in the July issue of Wood and Fibers Science.
Ray's proposed drying process requires the creation of an artificial intelligence program that analyzes the environment inside a wood drying kiln. The program monitors the kiln and attempts to predict future conditions of the wood and kiln environment and compensates in order to minimize deviation from optimal drying conditions.
Currently, the traditional process of drying wood uses vast amounts of energy. This process also causes warping and other defects in the wood if the drying kiln is not monitored properly and adjusted when necessary.
The traditional process relies on reacting to process changes after they occur. Because it takes a long time to adjust the heat in a drying kiln, a large amount of energy is typically wasted trying to deal with the normal variation within the wood, and to process upsets as they occur.
The AI program will decrease the amount of energy consumed in the drying process and the number of defects in the lumber. By using Ray's modified drying process, wood producers can reduce the amount of imperfections in the finished product, as well as save millions on energy costs.
The wood product industry is a $250 billion industry in the U.S. Manufacturers spend 10 to 40 percent of their production costs on energy consumption. As much as 80 percent of that energy cost is spent drying the wood. If the process can reduce the amount of energy used in drying wood by 10 percent, then millions of dollars could be saved, according to Ray.
Ray's drying process decreases warping in the finished wood product because it lessens the temperature fluctuations in a drying kiln. By decreasing energy costs and having a higher quality product, producers will save enough money that eventually these savings could trickle down to the consumers. "It could take up to 25 years for the entire industry to adopt these new drying techniques," said the Penn State researcher.
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