Taking an Initial Look at the Wood Products Industry in the Face of Industry 4.0

Research Issue

Hardwood parts for cabinet doors being manufactured in a U.S. woodworking facility.

The wood products industry has undergone significant changes since the advent of steam power and mechanized production during the Industrial Revolution. The technological revolution, also known as Industry 2.0, between 1870 and 1914 was noted for electrical energy, railroad expansion and increased communication networks leading to accelerated transfer of people and ideas.  In the digital revolution in the late 20th century, also called Industry 3.0, advances in IT and computer technology changed the way business was done. 

The latest advance, Industry 4.0, involves the rapid digitization of manufacturing, and enhanced automation, including smart factories and data-driven production systems.  With ongoing globalization, the wood products industry, including timber products manufacturing will again need to evolve and be open to adapting components of this new paradigm to remain competitive. 

Our Research

In late 2019 we conducted a study to assess the perceptions and experiences of secondary wood manufacturers concerning Industry 4.0.  Our goal was to identify specific challenges and opportunities associated with implementation of Industry 4.0 in the U.S. wood products industry.  The study was a joint effort by Virginia Tech, the USDA Forest Service, and Woodworking Network/FDMC.

The survey assessed manufacturers’ use of digitization/computerization in several manufacturing-related applications over the last three years and their level of investment in these new tools.  Manufacturers were asked to rate potential barriers to increasing computerization and about their perceptions of the potential impacts of increased digitization on their firm’s employment.  Respondents that had made a significant investment in digitization/computerization were also asked to qualitatively describe the most unexpected problem encountered.

Overall, responding firms tended to rate the success of their efforts to digitize/computerize operations as somewhat successful, and this was equally true for both small and large firms (even though more large firms than small had made significant investments). However, just 19 percent of small firms indicated that their respective companies had a strategic vision of how digitization might affect their business in the mid- to long-term, suggesting few are systematically thinking of the changes Industry 4.0 will bring.

Expected Outcomes

The information we collected on use of the new 4.0 technologies will help us identify industry status in modernization and barriers to implementation.  With this information we can continue to develop information for manufacturers that will help them in adopting new technology to sustain their competitive position in the global economy. Doing so helps maintain and create jobs, often in rural communities, and provide the economic incentives to sustainably manage U.S. forests.

Research Results

Buehlmann, Urs; ​Bumgardner, Matt; Forth, Karl D. 2020. Lack of a plan limits Industry 4.0 development for many companies. FDMC Magazine. May: 28-30.  

Research Participants

Principal Investigators

  • Matt Bumgardner, USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station, Research Product Technologist
  • Urs Buehlmann, Department of Sustainable Biomaterials, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia
  • Karl D. Forth, Woodworking Network, FDMC Magazine, CCI Media.


  • Last modified: May 19, 2020