Dr Morwenna Spear, Vice Chair of the Wood Technology Society (WTS), reports on the two day event.

The Timber conferences have become a regular feature in the Wood Technology Society calendar. With the Covid outbreak this year occurring early in the planning stages for the Timber 2020 event, the team had to consider alternative options. Working with the IOM3 Communications team we were able to use a high performance virtual conference platform to move the event online.

The team also thought creatively about how a virtual event might take place, as the idea of a full day of presentations in a ‘normal’ conference format seemed like a recipe for square eyes, and totally at the mercy of internet bandwidth. We wanted a format that would allow people to access the content regardless of their technology, and to get the most possible benefit of the knowledge and expertise of the speakers over the course of the event. The result was a hybrid format, with lots of on-demand content available before and after the event, plus two full afternoons of sessions with question and answer by the panels of presenters.

We also hoped to re-create the informal and social side of conferences as far as possible – even if the supplies of coffee and biscuits were down to individuals catering at home! As a result we included several virtual coffee breaks and a Social, ably hosted by Jamie Gallagher (@JamieBGall) with interactive quizzes, including picture rounds and some very eclectic wood-themed music to identify. It certainly broke the ice and made for an excellent atmosphere and banter between new found friends.

So, with the event just completed, did it work? I asked the Chair of the WTS board, Dr Graham Ormondroyd ‘Whilst it is always a shame not to meet with friends and colleagues to discuss new innovation in the timber industry, the current climate forced us to go online, pushing out a novel approach to delivering the conference. Using pre-recorded presentations and live Q&A sessions seemed to be engaging, whilst not forcing the attendee to sit in front of a computer for endless hours. The format seems to have worked well and was delivered to the approval of the audience.’

We heard similar feedback from other delegates.  thought the whole virtual conference ‘thing’ a great success from my point of view. Thanks to all involved.’ Another participant commented ‘Thank you to all the organisers, it all went exceptionally well and I think the format and platform was perfect.’ We were also told ‘… great mix of live and pre-recorded sessions which work really well together. Very impressed. It’s especially useful for those of us whose internet keeps dropping in and out!’, and finally ‘…of course the social was the best virtual social that I have attended this lock down.’

Another benefit was the number of delegates who joined for sessions, or who accessed talks and videos on the platform outside of the formal schedule of the event. Attendance was significantly increased, with delegates from outside the UK tuning in, including mainland Europe, Latin America and Asia.

The technical programme was excellent and wide-ranging, drawing on presentations from many universities within the UK, as well as the TDCA, TTF, and several companies with new products or useful technologies for the sector (RFIDdirect, Kiss House). One highlight was a presentation introducing the new Sustainable Timber Technologies course available from T U Dublin. Not only does this offer the full range of wood technology and business skills needed by the modern graduate for the industry, the course has also embedded sustainability throughout their syllabus, and undertaken an audit to demonstrate it.

Talks also addressed standards for bamboo structures and for wood plastic composites. Innovation was also prominent, ranging from the XR beam, using sweet chestnut coppice to efficiently form X-shaped cross sections, to the use of computer coding and microtome sections to reconstruct the interior of wood in 3D form for augmented reality projections.

The wood properties session posed some fundamental and highly relevant questions. Jerry Quayle (consultant) offered an excellent primer on timber and fire, calling for a change in attitude and a pressing need for new research. Dan Ridley-Ellis (Edinburgh Napier University) posed a host of questions about wood density, based on 12 million sample data points and highlighting a number of quirks in the dataset. It was fascinating, given the huge amount of data, to be left pondering whether we will ever know enough to be sure that timber grading systems are fully replicable and giving us the answers it should do.

Many excellent talks were by PhD students, EngD students or MEng students. These included Alicja Przysup of Edinburgh University on robustness of CLT structures, Carlo Kupfernagel (Bangor University) on fatigue properties of modified wood, Dominika Malkowska (Bristol University) on bonding systems for bamboo structures, Kyle Carter (University of Trinity St Davids) on LEAN manufacturing with his placement company Lignia Wood Company, Robert Wolverson (Swansea University) on fire retardancy and design for end of life in modified wood and Tim Belden (University of Surrey) on 3D visualisation of wood structure. These indicate a bright future for the sector, as new expertise and knowledge are being developed and communicated.

Finally, speaking of the future, sessions also addressed several pressing challenges – starting with climatic change and its influence on decay or degradation of timber, both on land (Simon Curling, Bangor University) and in the marine environment (Simon Cragg, University of Portsmouth). In the final session of the day, Callum Hill (consultant) reported the storage of timber during cascading usages, to abate carbon emissions, while Marlene Cramer tackled the issue of wood recycling and whether current practices actually permit the re-use of wood in good condition for multiple life-cycles. Graham Ormondroyd (Bangor University) then presented the emerging field of social life cycle assessment (sLCA) for the forest sector, reviewing not only environmental effects but social and ethical effects of our activities.

We are grateful to all our presenters for their hard work in not only writing papers and presenting, but also their willingness to use the new video format! We are very grateful to the IOM3 communications team for their support in compiling the event on the online platform, and during the event. We also had generous sponsorship from Canada Wood and TFT Wood Experts, which allowed the cost to delegates to be kept as low as possible. I am also very grateful to the Scientific Committee for their inputs and review of presentations, and insights during the development of the Timber 2020 event. Especial thanks go to Dan Ridley-Ellis and Marlene Cramer who both guided all the presenters through the task of adapting their talks to the online platform, and encouraging us to think creatively.

With the success of Timber 2020, I asked Graham Ormondroyd whether he be keen for the WTS to do more online events in future. ‘On-line has become a norm out of necessity, however I do think that online events are here to stay and we should be developing more virtual content for our members, whether this is larger conferences like Timber 2020, 1 hour seminars or vlogs, the challenge is to find our unique selling point in a sea of on-line content.’

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