Innovating industry: Developing a new generation of Tasmanian engineered timber flooring products

Kuluni Millaniyage has always admired nature – both in a physical and literary sense.

Born and raised in Sri Lanka, her parents instilled their love of wildlife and the environment in Kuluni, who to this day remains fascinated with English poet William Wordsworth whose work examined the human relationship to nature.

It was this connection which drew Kuluni to a career in research in the forest products sector.

Working on new flooring development at CSAW

A PhD candidate currently studying at the University of Tasmania’s Centre for Sustainable Architecture with Wood (CSAW) based in Launceston, Kuluni had previously studied a bachelor’s degree in forestry and environmental science and had worked in wood science and timber processing.

“Like my motherland Sri Lanka, Tasmania is an island with a luscious environment. I admire the calm serenity, and close-knit community, which provides an extraordinary quality of life for those of us lucky enough to live here,” Kuluni said.

Following the completion of her bachelor’s degree at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Kuluni was employed for two years on a maiden project which processed pre-finished engineered timber flooring, from log to final product.

“The timber utilised was Sri Lankan Teak and I was in charge of conducting necessary testing, research, and development – as well as quality assurance of the production line,” Kuluni said.

“This experience inspired me to conduct my higher studies on timber product development, which brought me to this beautiful island of Tasmania.”

Kuluni’s research examines the potential of developing a new generation of Tasmanian engineered timber flooring products for in-state manufacturing and is part of a project headed up by Australian Forests and Wood Innovations (AFWI) – formerly the National Institute for Forest Product Innovation (NIFPI). The project focuses on developing a new generation of Tasmanian appearance hardwood products.

Working alongside a research team at CSAW under the supervision of Dr Louise Wallis, Dr Nathan Kotlarewski, Dr Assaad Taoum and Prof Greg Nolan, Kuluni studies wood science and material properties aligning with the interests and requirements supporting Tasmanian timber industry.

Kuluni and her husband celebrating Sri Lankan new year in Tasmania

“My research is focused in developing a novel engineered timber flooring product using Tasmanian plantation Eucalyptus nitens: a value-added application to the plantation forests. My research outcomes developed a number of prototypes using plantation timber in engineered flooring products with the potential for a future commercial reality,” she said.

Kuluni said that with access to native high-density timbers becoming challenging in Australia and globally, the timber processing industry now requires alternative timber resources to facilitate the increasing market demand and sustainable operations.

“Identifying value added applications for short rotation plantation species can generate more return to plantation owners and provide alternatives to the upcoming native log supply,” Kuluni said.

As part of my doctoral degree, I was able to develop several engineered flooring prototypes which were subjected to testing in laboratories and in-service conditions. I have published three international journal articles based on the findings of my research.”

Further to this achievement, Kuluni was a recipient of the UTAS Vice Chancellor’s Innovation Award in 2022, for the contribution of research to incorporate Tasmanian solid timber flooring above heated floor slabs in the newly built River’s Edge building at Inveresk, as part of the Transformation and CSAW Project Team.

Kuluni’s passion for research is only matched by her dedication to volunteering – particularly to helping Sri Lankan students who have relocated to study in Tasmania.

Kuluni volunteering as an international peer leader at UTAS

“I volunteer as an international peer leader at UTAS, Study Tasmania Student Ambassador at Tasmanian Department of State Growth and as the secretary of the Sri Lankan Student’s Society at the Newnham campus to support international students to settle in Tasmania,” Kuluni said.

“I also volunteer teaching Sinhalese and Buddhism to the children of Sri Lankan students and enjoy organising events like Sri Lankan new year festivals as part of the Sri Lankan community in Launceston,” she said.

Kuluni’s academic success and commitment to helping others saw her recently nominated by Study Tasmania as a finalist for International Student of the Year Award.

As a research scientist, Kuluni hopes to develop her career in the field of new product development using timber; something she believes will greatly benefit the Tasmanian timber industry.

“I believe that there is a significant requirement for skills and research in forestry and timber sector and I look forward to using my expertise to support this industry.

“The Tasmanian timber industry is keen on identifying value added applications to plantation E. nitens as this novel timber resource is currently available in high volumes. My research showed that people are interested in buying locally made products from plantation resources. As part of this research, I have interviewed architects, timber processors and flooring experts as to what makes an attractive timber flooring product. Developing engineered timber flooring products from plantation E. nitens could be a great market outcome.”

Kuluni was recently awarded a TFFPN scholarship to participate in the Tas Leader’s Women in Forestry I-LEAD program, which is geared towards accelerating the leadership paths of both emerging and established women leaders in Tasmania, assisting them to build new strong networks.

“This opportunity has provided me an insight into the wonderful work conducted by women in many male-dominated industries in Tasmania,” Kuluni said.

“I consider myself fortunate to be a part of this program where knowledge on leadership is provided as well as the opportunity to share experiences with the participants. This keeps inspiring me in every session I attend where new aspects to leadership are introduced through creative activities.

Kuluni feels strongly that scholarship opportunities like this are key to building a more diverse, female-friendly industry.

“These programs add value to women’s work profiles, builds confidence and promotes networking through sharing experiences. This in turn inspires them and builds enthusiasm in generating best outcomes for their employers,” she said.