Distributed manufacturing for biomass processing

7 December 2022
Mini factories that use residues from production forests, or horticultural, crop and natural fibres to create new wood products, biochemicals and biomaterials.

New technology is making it possible to create mini manufacturing facilities that use a range of biomaterial, including forestry slash, to make wood-products, biofuels and chemicals. These mini factories will enable the transition away from fossil fuels, while supporting economic, environmental and social benefits for our regions. Their success depends on the manufacturing process matched to the available feedstock and creating products that customers demand.

A networked biomass processing sector distributed across New Zealand is well positioned to take advantage of regional opportunities.

Right process

Distributed manufacturing can play a large role in the forest- based value chain. This process means that mini factories are tailored to process biomass such as forest wood waste, horticultural and farm shelterbelt thinning’s or crop residues into high-value wood-based products, biochemicals, or their intermediates.

This is lean, agile, customer-specific manufacturing. In New Zealand’s current wood processing model, wood is pre-processed at super-skid sites and transported to centralised pulp and paper or timber mills, or it is exported. In the future, distributed manufacturing will mean that mini factories are tailored to process this woody waste, as well as horticultural or crop residues close to their origin.

Imagine a factory that fits in a shipping container – compact and mobile. These mini factories can be strategically positioned within a forest, orchard or farm where the waste is created. These factories can perform novel scalable processes such as biochemical conversion, pyrolysis and pulping. The choice of process depends on inputs and the product being made.

Around 4 million tons of residue remains in our forests each year. Mobile, tailored mini factories will be key to using this resource.

New Zealand currently exports over 60% of harvested wood as logs for other countries to process and add value. A network of small-scale wood processing units could create value from these logs with the economic, social and environmental benefits of a forest-based bioeconomy returning to the communities in our regions.

Right region

A biomass processing sector distributed across New Zealand is well positioned to take advantage of regional opportunities. For example, forestry thinning’s in Northland, crop stubble from Canterbury and pruned orchard shelterbelts in Hawke’s Bay. Greater processing, making better use of forestry residues, creates high value products, supports regional communities and leads to new employment. Jobs created in manufacturing and engineering in New Zealand tend to create additional employment in support jobs. Similarly, revenue created in manufacturing has a multiplier effect in regional economies, with economic benefits accruing to transport, primary production and commercial construction.

Due to New Zealand’s rugged and often remote forest plantations, transport is an important factor in business decisions and competitiveness. Supporting the value chain with new products that can be delivered in a timely, cost-effective manner is an important part of developing business within the industry.

While New Zealand is fortunate to have plentiful woody biomass feedstocks, they are clumped at landing sites, skid sites and within forests. Lowering the extraction and transport costs of harvesting residues will be key to increasing their use.

Establishing new large central biorefinery infrastructure capable of converting feedstock to biochemicals and bioproducts needs large capital investment. However, mini factories in a distributed network have lower capital required for their establishment and are complementary to new biorefineries. They can be added alongside existing infrastructure. Mini factories create processing options that can generate multiple products from different feedstocks across the forestry, horticultural and cropping sectors.

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Source: Scion