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Is the Pulp and Paper Industry Getting the Most It Can From University Research?

Can the industry actually lead and enhance change in academia, so that innovation challenges particular to the Canadian pulp and paper context are more effectively addressed? Probably so. The industry...


July 1, 2003
By Pulp & Paper Canada

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Can the industry actually lead and enhance change in academia, so that innovation challenges particular to the Canadian pulp and paper context are more effectively addressed? Probably so. The industry may be able to benefit from some interesting changes in Canadian academia if they are proactive and user-friendly in forming appropriate collaborations with university.

What are these changes? Design is the creation of new products and processes that must meet a number of criteria such as intended purpose, cost, and environmental impact. It involves seeking multi-disciplinary solutions to real-world, open-ended problems. Innovation is defined in Canada’s Innovation Strategy as “coming up with new ideas about how to do things better or faster… It is about putting new ideas to work in our businesses and industries and having a skilled work force that can use those new ideas.” Design for innovation is a powerful concept that responds to many current and future pulp and paper industry needs, and academic programs are being created to encourage this direction in universities. The pulp and paper industry can benefit by supporting the initiatives being created in this direction.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, better known as NSERC (www.nserc.ca), has for decades been the leading funding organization for research in Canadian academia. NSERC’s Mission is “to invest in people, discovery, and innovation to build a strong Canadian economy and to improve the quality of life of all Canadians. It supports research in universities and colleges, research training of scientists and engineers, and research-based innovation”. In their Spring 2002 newsletter (the NSERC Contact, Volume 27, No. 1), NSERC President Tom Brzustowski comments on Canada’s Innovation Strategy that “Perhaps for the first time in history, research is seen as central to the government’s vision”. NSERC has recognized the importance of Canada’s Innovation Strategy, and with this vision and great leadership, NSERC has established several important initiatives.

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The first and probably the most significant initiative is the establishment of the Chairs in Design Engineering program whose objective is “to improve the level and quality of design engineering activity within Canadian universities”. Over the last several years NSERC has funded 11 of a potential 16 Chairs in this program, in which they match up to $1 million over five years for each Chair. While the design capability in Canadian universities is improving, the greatest academic traditions reside in fundamental research. Nonetheless NSERC’s insistence on high standards is paying off. Several of the Design Chairs have attracted industry design practitioners as Chairholders who are now executing exciting and relevant design research, while other Design Chairs have created significant initiatives to “institutionalize” design, for example by creating multi-disciplinary engineering programs.

One good example is at cole Polytechnique in Montreal, where the first NSERC Design Chair was established in November 2000, entitled Process Integration in the Pulp and Paper Industry. Through support from 10 Design Chair partners including Paprican and 4 pulp and paper companies (Abitibi-Consolidated, Domtar, Kruger and Tembec), the Design Chair seeks to “find value in data” and address mill challenges by analyzing real-time process data management systems (such as PI systems). The Chairholder is Professor Paul Stuart of the Chemical Engineering Department who has spent 12 years in the engineering consulting world.

Stuart says “I was attracted to the Chair because universities are changing to encourage design for innovation — especially those with existing strong engineering programs such as cole Polytechnique — we were able to define a design program which built on the existing strong research capability in areas such as advanced data analysis and process control.”

The design program of the Process Integration Chair is quite unique by university standards. Stuart says “Our students go to mills and access process data early in their program, and then spend the next several years trying to understand what it all means.”

The Chair is conducting research with the goal of advancing the application of data analysis tools as thermal pinch analysis to find energy efficiency opportunities, multivariate analysis to find relationships between paper quality and measured operating parameters, and examining opportunities for process optimization such as paper machine scheduling.

Stuart says that there are challenges with this kind of research: “We must respond to shorter-term mill objectives, and as well, must meet high academic standards for research excellence. Our greatest successes are with those mills who have committed to supporting our Design Chair, but even more difficult in this day and age, those who can be patient with the timeframes required for university research. Ideally our pulp and paper industry partners define important but longer-term objectives for the program, and identify mill champions who work alongside our graduate students to produce useful results throughout the graduate work. I believe that universities can provide an excellent return on investment to the pulp and paper industry in conducting problem-oriented, design-oriented research.”

The NSERC Design Chair will be further covered in Pulp and Paper Canada later this year.

Another recent NSERC initiative was to support a proposal creating the Canadian Design Engineering Network (known as C-DEN), whose goal is to improve design education in Canadian Engineering faculties by creating web-based design courseware across a range of engineering disciplines. CDEN node “champions” have been established in nearly every engineering faculty in Canada, CDEN computer facilities are being installed, and the first courseware is under development. CDEN continues to evolve under the current leadership of Chan Wirasinghe, who is also Dean of Engineering at the University of Calgary. CDEN seeks to crystallize the Canadian academic design research community, and create close links between this community and industry. cole Polytechnique’s Stuart is the Vice-Chair of CDEN and says “The energy at the last CDEN Steering Committee meeting in Calgary in July was tremendous. We discussed many of the ambitious plans related to our evolving vision. For example, we want to interest private enterprise in CDEN and connect clearly with their design training and research priorities, establish a design journal and conference, and we want to work closely with NSERC to establish additional design-oriented programs.”

It appears that Canadian academia is changing to bridge the gap between fundamental research and industry needs. There exists a variety of opportunities that pulp and paper companies can take advantage of in this regard, and build on the existing great traditions in Canadian university.#text2#