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Reliability for mills, today and tomorrow and beyond

Seven critical considerations in achieving success in equipment and mill operation reliability in 2023

April 10, 2023  By Treena Hein

Technology, automation and innovation support the reliability landscape in pulp and paper mills today. Photo: Paper Excellence

Equipment reliability in every sector is reaching unprecedented levels each year, thanks to advances in software, sensors and much more. As Jeff Smith explains, “right now, the global pulp and paper sector is undergoing a technological transformation as big as the other colossal transformation it experienced in the past – going from steam motors to electrification.” Smith is the corporate head of asset reliability at Paper Excellence, and he has written hundreds of articles and several books on reliability engineering.

There’s already been a huge shift in how equipment reliability and asset management is viewed across the pulp and paper sector and other sectors, from a reactive stance to a much more proactive stance in terms of maintenance regimes. But Smith stresses that there is much more to consider.

In simple terms, he urges everyone in the pulp and paper industry to understand that ‘you can’t maintain your way to reliability.’


“It’s never been a maintenance conversation,” he explains. “It’s about the entire picture, about ensuring continual operation of a plant, ensuring nothing happens that affects plant operation. It’s about making sure everything goes right, all of the time. Having a maintenance strategy is part of it, but a lot of it is culture and the understanding that it requires an overarching approach.”

As with any industry transformation, there are early adopters, visionaries and those who are lagging behind right now, not just in understanding the complex pulp and paper mill reliability landscape, but in implementing the critical ideas needed to maintain – and hopefully also grow – profits and market share.

As with any industry transformation, there are early adopters, visionaries and those who are lagging behind right now. Here are seven critical aspects of reliability that all pulp and paper stakeholders should consider in 2023.

1) Use a company-wide strategy

Making sure all company plants are ‘on the same page’ with reliability means that equipment reliability and operational continuity at all locations will be brought up to same high level.

In its use of new technologies and digital tools to support business continuity and in planning, production and preventive maintenance to optimize operations and prevent downtime, leaders at Resolute Forest Products say aligning all facilities with the same systems and processes has been their “biggest achievement.”

Company leaders say “the lessons learned in making this change was the importance of a broad knowledge-based team, a good plan – including a plan for the change – strong execution, and support from leadership that includes adequate governance for the change.”

2) Ensure cybersafety

Vijay Veeramisti, general manager of maintenance and engineering at AV Group’s Terrace Bay mill (AVTB) in Northern Ontario, stresses that “even though the world is embarked on adopting the Industry 4.0 standard, the view of our team is to ensure its robustness and provide due consideration for cybersecurity. With so many mills in the world getting affected by ransomware attacks, critical processes and policies need to be followed to ensure that the systems are immune to these attacks. Cybersecurity protection using ISA 99/IEC 62443 standards has to be adopted to address and mitigate future security vulnerabilities in industrial automation and control systems.”

3) Use lessons learned

Other sectors, most notably petrochemical and mining, are ahead of pulp and paper with reliability, but Smith says smart companies are benefiting from that experience.

“The constraints are strong and the margins are razor-thin in pulp and paper, and we need to be the best of the best,” he says. “In mining, they have more money to invest in reliability and supporting continuous operation, but we can leapfrog over their growing pains. For example, at mines, the trucks already automatically report potholes so that transport is continual and both truck and road reliability stays high. The focus has transitioned from failure modes (the loss of function) and early detection of failures to managing the physics that induce the failures. This transition is enabled by our ability to manage strain, stress and thermal cycles etc.”

4) Build internal competencies

To build greater operational reliability, instead of completely relying on outside vendors, mills should strive to create higher levels of internal and independent competence in equipment monitoring interpretation, diagnostics and decision making. Because mills operate 24/7, having more self-sufficiency in overseeing systems and trouble-shooting rather than having to reach vendors across time zones and outside normal business hours is an important reliability consideration.

5) Understand ‘digital natives’

Comprehending the outlook of the digital native, says Smith, is absolutely integral to achieving reliability of equipment and operation across the pulp and paper industry. Digital natives are young people who have never known life without the internet and technologies such as digital data capture, storage and transmission. Smith spoke about them at an international maintenance conference hosted by Reliability Web.

“Enabling the digital native for success is the most important topic in reliability right now,” he says. “We must not focus only on the new tools such as AI and machine learning. We must put the focus on people. We must create a new workforce culture to attract digital natives and support them to be successful. We have to ‘gamify’ training and tasks and do so much more. We are having a hard time recruiting in this industry. To young people, mills seem to be all about manual labour and we have to create a culture that the digital natives want to be part of, with the technologies that they expect and also new systems that engage them.”

Many pulp and paper firms are capturing the equipment and process reliability knowledge of older workers who are retiring and preparing it for transfer to digital native employees, but for Paper Excellence it is going to be transferring its video content to augmented reality form. “We are also transitioning completely away from notebooks to the sole use of hand-held devices,” says Smith, “and building a digital support system for employees to be able to find instructions and guidance on maintenance, troubleshooting, next steps and more.”

In parallel with these systems, Paper Excellence is also developing simulators to train younger workers in how to operate a mill. “Simulators are not hard to build and are very practical,” Smith notes. “You can introduce typical scenarios and train what to do. This is already done with petrochemical plants. A lot of our problems in pulp and paper plants are operator-induced, when a process anomaly manifests that they are unsure of how to deal with.”

6) Automate reliability

At the same time we address the digital natives, Smith says we must also have a focus beyond human labour. “Right now, we are really people-dependent and we really need to change our way of thinking,” he explains. “We need to redefine what best practices are and understand data to information, information to knowledge, knowledge to action, automatic feedback loops between cause and effect to achieve reliability. We must work to heavily rely on AI, machine vision and other new tools if it wants to significantly improve overall reliability programs.”

Smith notes that with rule-based diagnostics, a process anomaly or something like a known failure like an amperage spike in the wall of a clarifier, machines can be enabled to automatically set up their own work requests. “And that process anomaly,” he says, “is added to the AI’s knowledge base.”

In this vein, Paper Excellence is using a MetrisX distributed control system developed by Andritz to improve plant performance and reliability at its Meadow Lake Mechanical Pulp plant. The system monitors for areas in refiner plates that might fail and predicts when they need to be replaced in order to avoid an unplanned shutdown.

7) Innovate with new tools

AVTB mill has many aging and obsolete systems, and its team is therefore using the most innovative ideas and technologies to enhance the plant’s reliability and performance.

“AVTB mill has a multitude of control systems and currently acquiring the data from DCS systems to process information is quite easy. But, this mill utilizes older technologies and innovation, therefore, plays a greater role,” explains Veeramisti. “AVTB in partnership with an India-based software firm developed protocols to acquire data from obsolete single-loop controllers and older-generation PLCs. This provides visualization for the process team to support operators in decision-making. The daily logs and reporting were also digitized so that it could ease the operators.”

In addition, because there are still many obsolete pieces of equipment still in use at this mill, 3D printing “has helped vastly” to maintain existing assets. “It helps to develop models to test parts,” says Veeramisti, “and then we can fabricate the spare parts with those.”

The team at AV Group’s Atholville mill (a dissolving grade pulp mill in New Brunswick), also continuously explores opportunities to innovate for higher reliability. Built in the late 1920s, the mill still has many pieces of the original equipment still in operation such as the can dryer sections of both pulp machines. “Although modern can dryer construction is similar, these dryers run on plain journal bearings with a bronze liner or ‘shell,’ lubricated by saturated grease ‘socks,’” explains maintenance and engineering manager Jamie Reinsborough. As the lubricant is exhausted, the shells are exposed to increased wear and the risk of potential bearing housing or even journal damage goes up.

The team has tested shells machined from a composite material called Ryertex in the most demanding positions and found they work extremely well. “The Ryertex is able to withstand extended re-lubrication intervals, and to date, they have outlasted the bronze over five times the typical life,” says Reinsborough. “It’s a good example of how modern composites can extend time-based maintenance cycles for less machine downtime and lower maintenance cost.”

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