Before you can understand the significance of innovation within the utility pole industry, it’s important to better dissect the true-life cycle of a pole, from initial planting of the tree, through manufacturing, and then ultimately to disposal. In this way, we can determine whether an innovation that is designed to have an impact on one part of the life cycle might also have a positive effect on others.
- Harvesting of Trees – Generally speaking, the most common tree species used for poles in this country are southern yellow pine and Douglas fir trees. A designated group of foresters works with private landowners who grow and harvest the wood for manufacturing purposes. Together with farmers there is a collaborative effort to purchase, plant, maintain and manage the land. The utility pole industry will typically leverage the “last cut” or the oldest trees. Depending on the need from different utilities, a specific kind of tree size – or “pole” class – will be determined and selected.
- Manufacturing of Poles – The trees we have cut are taken to a peeling plant, where the bark is stripped off and the diameter of the tree is further shaped and smoothed prior to being treated. The poles are then taken to a treatment facility, where they are placed on a rail tram-like device and rolled into a giant tube called a treatment cylinder. The cylinder is filled with a chosen chemical preservative, and a liquid (water or diesel fuel) is added that helps to serve as a “carrier” for the preservative as it impregnates the wood. Through a vacuum pressure treatment process, the poles soak up the liquid, and the chemical preservative with it. The poles are then removed from the tube, the chemical is pumped into a storage facility for safe handling, and the poles are then either air or kiln dried.
- Final Preparations – the poles are moved to what’s termed a “framing yard,” where workers drill holes into the poles at specified locations to allow the utility to fit cross arms onto the pole. These cross arms serve an important role, allowing for power lines to be successfully strung from pole to pole.
- Delivery and Use – The final output of this process is a pole that can be sold to a utility and put to use in the field. Just how long the pole will last in the field depends on multiple factors, including which preservative it has been treated with and the climate it will be subjected to.
- Disposal – This is the step where recent innovation has occurred. Whether due to a pole reaching the end of the roughly forty years that it can function or due to its being removed to make way for something like a widening road, utilities need to get rid of the pole in some way. Traditionally this has meant disposal via landfills. The carbon found within these poles, however, could be used to generate energy after the end of the pole’s life as a utility pole—providing opportunities to eliminate waste and transform the pole even further.
Understanding the life-cycle of the utility pole helped expose an area of the process that provided no real value to stakeholders. It’s what led a group of innovators to contemplate the following: how do we generate environmental value downstream in the process, at the time of disposal, when traditional approaches offer zero value for everyone involved?
When was the last time you carefully considered your product’s lifecycle with the lens of value-creation throughout the entire process? Doing so will likely provide several feasible ideas for innovation and improvement that will benefit your stakeholders. Learn more about finding the right approach to innovation for your organization here.