Robotic Gardener Grows Teak Robot Books

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Courtesy of New Scientist Magazine

Bob Johnstone

Technology developed by a Brisbane company to mass produce high quality plants is set to revolutionize the Malaysian timber industry. The first goal, using genetic material from Malaysian plants, is to produce quality teak much more quickly than with conventional plantation methods. If this can be done, Malaysia will retain its preeminent position as a provider of world timber and it won't have to chop down its native forests in the process.

The partners in this enterprise are the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM) and the Brisbane company, ForBio. They are working together to commercialize teak propagation systems. The Australian firm, using its robotic technology, will produce and market the material, with Malaysian timber companies likely to be among the first customers. ForBio will pay the institute a royalty for the genetic material.

Malaysia, like other Asian nations, has a problem. Worldwide demand for timber far outstrips the forestry industry's ability to supply it. But logging natural forests cannot be sustained and Malaysia, for example, has committed itself to sustainable forest management by the year 2000.

"In order to meet the shortfall of timber from the forest, we need to find other alternatives," says Abdul Razak, director general of FRIM. That means teak grown on plantations. The hard yellow-brown wood, which is grown mainly in Burma, Thailand and Indonesia, is much sought-after for furniture and veneers. But teak has a very long gestation period, typically lasting from 60 to 80 years. That is much longer than most investors are prepared to wait for a return.

Razak believes that by using new technologies such as genetic markers to link plant DNA with observed growth characteristics, teak trees can be harvested in 15 to 20 years. And this is where ForBio enters the picture. "In a typical forestry stand you might have 1000 trees per hectare," explains ForBio CEO, Bob Mullins. "So your productivity is going to be the average performance of 1000 different, genetically unique individuals."

To identify the top 20 performers out of that 1000, ForBio researchers use genetic markers. The technology enables them not only to select the best performing individuals, but also to estimate how much genetic diversity there is within that top group.

The next step is to propagate the best plants through tissue culture. This is a simple cycle: you keep the plants growing under sterile conditions, cut out the buds they produce at regular intervals, then re-plant the buds. Traditionally, culturing is done by humans. "It is an unbelievably tedious process," Mullins says." So ForBio has developed and commercialized a tissue culture robot, which it claims is the first of kind in the world.

The robot brings in boxes of plants, opens the boxes, and harvests the plant. Then the robot takes a picture of the plant and, using sophisticated visual analysis software, it makes decisions about where and how to cut, and what to do with the various pieces. Having planted them into fresh boxes of tissue culture, the robot puts the lid back on and racks the boxes for people to take back out into a growth room.

ForBio's robotic mass propagation was developed under the Australian government's now-defunct R&D syndicates scheme. Formerly known as QSTL, the company adopted the name ForBio when it listed on the stock exchange in January 1996. Since then, through a series of joint ventures, the company has moved quickly from being a technology start-up to a global-scale production business. ForBio has installed ten of its robots around the world, including one in Singapore and two at a joint venture in Indonesia. The company also runs several robots at its production facility in Gosford, just north of Sydney. Razak was in Australia earlier this month to see these machines.

The agreement between ForBio and FRIM is another example of the value of educating Asians in Australia, according to Mullins. Twenty years ago, Razak studied at the University of Tasmania in Hobart. "Throughout Asia, in the senior echelons of government and business, there is a wide group of people who have benefited from the Australian education system," says Mullins. "That is invaluable to us as part of establishing our networks and just helps you to have that common ground and understanding as you develop a business."

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