J.D. Irving, Limited (JDI)

Challenge: Remaining globally competitive
Solution: Continuous R&D and using robotics to improve operations

Frontier Power Systems

When we drive through Atlantic Canada and Maine, we can't help but see lots of trees. But have you ever considered the science that goes into growing some of those trees?

J.D. Irving, Limited (JDI), based in Saint John, New Brunswick, employs thousands of employees across the region. The company's core business operates in the forest products sector and includes the manufacturing of lumber, pulp and paper, and tissue products. The company manages over 2.3 million hectares of freehold and Crown license, and operates two state-of-the-art containerized seedling nurseries that produce up to 27 million trees per year.

As part of its efforts to remain globally competitive and ensure a productive, healthy forest for generations to come, JDI has been conducting ongoing R&D on the propagation of trees using innovative somatic embryogenesis (SE) combined with robotic technology for increased efficiency and competitiveness.

JDI needed to look at a fully mechanized SE handling, transplanting, and greenhouse-culture system to produce up to four million elite spruce seedlings per year in a cost-efficient manner. The solution introduced by JDI scientists was a new robotic technology that is used to handle tissue culture produced spruce embryos. With this technology, they are helping to ensure the process becomes cost effective enough to reproduce on a larger scale.

"We're producing better trees with better growth rates, better resistance to pests, better adaptation to climate change and overall better quality, explains Adams. The new robotic technology will allow us to improve the value of the trees we plant, making us more competitive in the long run."

SE is a recently developed technology for producing plants using tissue culture. It is a technique which allows for multiplication of selected trees, much the same as rooting cuttings or grafting of horticultural and agricultural plants (houseplants, apples, potatoes etc.). Trees produced through SE possess many advantages over conventional seed production, including greater flexibility to combine important traits such as growth rate, adaptiveness to climate change and pest resitance – all of which are important in sustaining a high quality wood supply to the forest industry sector.

"A lot of the emphasis in our genetics program has been identifying very good and diverse individual trees with good combinations of traits which are then frozen in cryogenetic storage," says Greg Adams, Manager of R&D for JDI's tree improvement operations. "Once we've been able to test these trees, we can then go back to the cryostorage, retrieve tissue from these trees and go through a tissue culture process to produce seedlings to plant."

The process of propagating spruce trees is a challenging one. Although there have been significant achievements by JDI in the past 15 years to advance SE technology, technical challenges and production costs are still limiting the company's ability to commercialize the technology for mass propagation. This is how the robotic technology came about.

Partnerships focused on driving innovation and the development of new technologies, such as the one with the Government of Canada, play a key role in JDI’s continued growth. With support from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), the government is helping JDI address some of the technical challenges facing its industry. An investment of over $1.3 million is helping JDI secure a sustainable supply of wood and also seek commercial opportunities for the technology developed from the project through robotic technology.

J.D. Irving is a prime example of how innovation and resourcefulness fuel Atlantic Canada’s economy, at home and beyond.

For more information on programs and services available to businesses in Atlantic Canada call 1-800-561-7862 or go to www.acoa-apeca.gc.ca

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The new robotic technology will allow us to improve the value of the trees we plant, making us more competitive in the long run.
Greg Adams, Manager of R&D for JDI's tree improvement operations
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