For the roller coaster lumber industry, the pandemic is an obstacle on the track

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Here in Vancouver, BC, we have an amusement park called Playland, where one of the main attractions is a rickety roller coaster that has been running for over 100 years. Thanks to the wooden construction, no matter how prepared you think you are for the dives and dives ahead, the ride offers a different experience every time you step on board.

The woodworking industry looks a lot like this wooden coaster. Those rapid wobbles, bumps and turns that jostle the cars as they careen down the track remind me of some of the hurdles we’ve had to work around since the public health crisis began: price, production disruptions, staffing issues and transportation, weather, politics, customer and end customer needs. And just when you thought you knew what the impact would be, it was no different riding that roller coaster, which might shake unexpectedly on a section of track where it hadn’t before.

But as an essential service, we do not give in to pressure and we do not fear challenges: we adapt and move forward.

Part of the reason we’re equipped to do this is because, well, we’re used to it. The pandemic has added a new layer of complexity, but the industry has always faced temporary issues in the form of seasonal challenges, weather-related disruptions, or economic fluctuations, to name a few. While we usually deal with these factors one by one over different years, it seems the pandemic has activated them all at once! We know how to react when these events occur independently, and now we learn to process them when they occur in different combinations.

The level of disruption has been unprecedented, and so has the level of adaptability that has resulted: technology and innovation, new business models, stronger partnerships. Ultimately, the pandemic couldn’t derail the industry. Instead, we’re stronger than a few years ago and much more versatile.

forward momentum

That being said, where do we go from here? As always, the industry evolves according to the needs of the consumer. I have noticed three trends in particular emerging from the pandemic that I believe have implications for wood products in the future.

  1. Collective reflection: Now that the worst is over, it’s time to ask questions like “what caught us off guard?” Or, ‘how could we have been better prepared?’ As we turn the microscope to ourselves, I think it will spawn other ways of thinking about logistics. The conversation will turn to what can be done locally to avoid supply chain issues, as well as other strategies for becoming less dependent on things that are easily disrupted. People will try to ensure that whatever is exposed as a vulnerability is addressed, while taking a long-term view to predict what else might happen.

Customers, on the other hand, reflect on what is important to them. Turns out it’s value and quality. It is not the cheapest price, but rather the best product.

  1. Collective consciousness: Alongside the collective reflection that takes place between companies and their customers, it is the interest in social issues that has revived, on several levels, during the pandemic. What that means for our industry is that people aren’t so quick to give up on something that’s not being sustainably managed. They want good quality stuff, but they also want environmental neutrality. And it’s not just about the product anymore; people want to know if there’s a story to go with it – is it sustainable? Does it help First Nations groups prosper? Will this new bridge be reused or salvaged in 25 years or just thrown in a landfill? These are the kinds of things that really matter now, and I’m proud to work with a company that recognized the importance of sustainability, being stewards of the forest, and partnering with First Nations long ago. has years, setting a higher standard. The opportunity is there for producers to really step up and fuel this movement. Almost all of the developments taking place have a passive living aspect to them, and sustainable wood products are the way to achieve this.
  2. Customer response: Social issues have really come to the fore during the pandemic, and people have spoken out. Really vocal. And about all sorts of things, including the wood and why they hadn’t received their order yet. Social media has been flooded with facetious memes referring to market fluctuations. Things like: I’ll trade you this Ferrari for a stack of two-by-fours. While communication between manufacturers and distributors is the status quo, engaging consumers was a new experience, but one that the industry can use as a springboard. It’s a chance to listen to what people are saying in a comedic or funny way, but take it to heart. One way to do this is to use product branding. While people typically equate photocopiers and Xerox or tissues and Kleenex, this brand recognition is absent from wood products. Western Forest Product is taking the lead in this direction, however, and others are sure to start venturing there too. We want to talk to that end user who speaks so loudly to us and say, “we have what you are asking for”.

Of these potential emerging opportunities looming on the horizon, all are significant; but what’s most exciting to me personally is the growing awareness that people, industry, the world are bringing to their everyday use of things. What’s more “everyday” than where you live? I think this is one of the main reasons why wood will remain so relevant in the long run.

There is a lot of noise at the moment, for example, about massive wooden structures. I’d love to see every major city in the world backpedal from 80-story concrete and steel towers in favor of these wooden skyscrapers. There’s a huge place for them in residential life, and the projects already in place—an 18-storey building at the University of British Columbia, for example—prove we can do it. As major architectural firms realize the benefits of mass timber construction, regulations ease and people become more aware, I think this is a realistic and achievable dream.

Get back online

Until we get there, there’s likely to be some extra lurching, swaying, and bouncing, just like on our trusty wooden roller coasters. But sitting there, tense and tense, trying to anticipate every twist, will only give you a boost! Instead, let the ride take you where it will take you and figure out where to go from there when you disembark. Keep that in mind as the coaster returns to the station and prepares for the next lap, which will inevitably be different from the last.

But please wear your seat belt and keep your hands inside the ride at all times.

– Gavy Gosal is a sales representative for Western Forest Products, Vancouver, BC (www.westernforest.com).

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