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To Build or not to Build

With the new millennium just months ahead, the temptation to assess where we are and where we are going seems irresistible. For the paper industry, the assessment has to include electronic change, the...


August 1, 1999
By Pulp & Paper Canada

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Paprican's high-intensity dryer maximizes opportunities to improve the quality of the sheet

With the new millennium just months ahead, the temptation to assess where we are and where we are going seems irresistible. For the paper industry, the assessment has to include electronic change, the volatility of the market, and the cyclical nature of the industry itself. The industry’s technical equipment is as susceptible to these forces as its management and its workforce.

The past decade has seen an immense amount of automation and electronic change in the pulp and paper industry. Because of the advancements, expectations of technical advancement have changed. John White, general manager of the forest products division of Gerrard-Ovalstrapping, believes that electronics and computerization are the biggest factors driving technical advancement. He said that the speed of electronic change has producers believing they must be continually looking for better, stronger and faster controls. “There is some desire to have the best, fastest and newest technology,” he said. “Certainly, we need to move forward, but the hottest new chip does not always make you move forward.”

A great deal of electronic improvement has already been made. Ivan Pikulik, director, Papermaking division, Paprican, agreed that there has been continual development in process control. However, the computerization is not the driving force of all technology and technical change in papermaking, said Pikulik. “In papermaking a great deal of process control revolution has already happened.”

Likewise, advances in recycling were front-page news for many years, but recycling has lost its momentum because the pay off did not meet up to expectations. “If you don’t perform,” said Bob Eamer, senior v-p, technical development, Domtar ” you don’t become, or stay, the subject of people’s interest.”

Improvements spurred on by environmental concerns were at the forefront in the late 80s and early 90s. Over $25 billion had been spent in the past 10 years to modify installations for productivity gains and pollution control compelling the industry to spend billions of dollars to implement the technology. The technology and the upgrade have been dear, raising operating costs for the mills and incurring interest on loans used to implement the changes. “It has been costly,” said Eamer. “The need still exists, but the challenge is to find a way to continue improvement in processes without the huge dollar investment of the past, and without the increased operating costs in the process.”

What is driving change?

The needs to decrease process costs, to increase the consistency of the product and to make more grade changes, are spurring technical advancement in the industry, according to Eamer. There is also the desire to decrease the need for capital, by installing up-to-date equipment that requires less maintenance and less replacement.

Quality improvement, all agree, however, is the main catalyst today for technical change. Any change that is made, any new technology that is introduced has to improve the quality of the product. These advancement and improvements are made throughout the pulping and papermaking process but, as Eamer said, and others agreed “in papermaking the opportunities are the greatest. More advances are being made and implemented.”

The next step? New shoes

Pressing and drying have benefited from some of the implementation Eamer spoke of with such techniques as press roll heating, and a novel Finnish technique called Condebelt drying. Ivan Pikulik considered what new opportunities and challenges face paper makers.

Existing headboxes are adequate for the present generation of formers, according to Pikulik, though a novel type of former developed in the future might require a new headbox.

Forming is an area where Pikulik does not see a need for a lot of development. Still a machine with higher retention of the starting materials would be beneficial to paper quality. To improve print quality, ideally, the former would place reinforcing fibres in the middle of the sheet while fines and fillers would be held on the surface. Existing formers are not designed to engineer the sheet structure.

“Twin formers do the opposite of what we want,” Pikulik said. The next step is a completely new concept in forming though Pikulik does not see this change coming quickly because the introduction of a new technology “is risky at this time. There is no perception of great urgency to force this development…. The principle of forming would have to change completely,” said Pikulik.

One possible means of improving the sheet, he said, would consist of separating fines and fillers from white water and applying them on the sheet.

Eamer agreed that current forming technology is very good, but added that it is also very expensive because it operates at very low concentrations and requires huge infrastructure to handle, store and drain all of the water. Good formation at higher concentrations could potentially lower the high cost of the process.

In pressing, Pikulik would like to see the elimination of open draws, and instead have a sheet that would travel fully supported. Currently available techniques of doing this include the wet-web transfer system, the press belt, and double felted presses with a suction transfer between the felts. Paprican has tried the first two of these techniques. “This is a development that is overdue…. An open draw provides too much opportunity for the sheet to break, or damage.”

Adapting technology from board makers, the shoe press is nowadays used to press the sheet at higher speeds. A shoe press consists of a press roll on one side and hydraulically loaded contoured shoe on the other. This technology is used in Port Hawkesbury. “Pressing does not need revolutionary development. This (technique) will provide sufficient pressing capability for years to come,” Pikulik.

Drying is an area that would benefit from revolutionary changes. The Stora machine, for example, is 146 m long and its drying section has 89 steel revolving cylinders. Space requirement is extensive because conventional dryers have a relatively low drying rate at 15 kg/m2/h, Pikulik reported. High-intensity drying, a technique developed at Paprican, takes up about 1/3 the amount of space required by a conventional dryer, said Pikulik, and is capable of drying 150 kg/m2/h. He added that there remains a missed opportunity to improve the quality of the sheet in drying.

Generally, there is a fair amount of room for improvement for sizing and coating equipment. He cited novel application techniques of on-machine coating that can be found at the Pacifica Papers mill in Port Alberni, BC, and at the Malette mill in St. Raymond, QC.

Soft calendering, he said, may get wider use.

Risk is too costly

Because of the terrible financial performance of the industry and the fact that the financial performance of most companies is still significantly lower than the expectations of investors, research and development does not get the attention and the necessary funds to keep the Canadian industry highly competitive. Canada spends less than competing nations on R&D, averaging about .3% of sales. This is probably amongst the lowest in the world, said Eamer.

“R&D has one problem…you always see how much it costs but the benefit is much less obvious,” said Pikulik.

High level risk in the extremely capital-intensive paper industry does not encourage risk-taking. Introduction of new technology is very slow. With a return on investment of about 3 to 4% and a stock index that has grown at half the rate of most other stocks, the industry has to be cautious.

The time frame of viability for the equipment is shrinking, said John White. As potential application of technology changes, we are not using the equipment as long. Benefits are displaced for shorter periods of time. “It is hard to make a purchase today and know it will be leading edge for the next five years.”

The costly items are the big pieces of equipment that cause the industry problems. “A recovery furnace costs approximately $100 million. You’re paying 10% interest on that,” Eamer said. “Most pulp mil
ls are recovery limited. An electrostatic precipitator will cost you $10 million. You have to generate $1 million more in revenue to break even. Secondary treatment plants… some cost $40 to $60 million and they increase operating costs!”

“Replacing equipment is prohibitive,” said Dave Ingram, mill manager, Western Pulp. “You can’t make the money back. We haven’t got return on investments we have already made.”

Eamer said that one challenge is that the industry and its suppliers are continually consolidating. “We have fewer competitive suppliers who are looking at these issues,”said Eamer. We need to develop more solutions in Canada, he said, to optimize the peripheral economic benefits, such as seen in Scandinavia and Europe today.

Because of the expense the industry does not get many chances to go with really new equipment. This situation slows down development. Pikulik added that a mill cannot afford to take the chance and the cost to introduce a paper machine with three HID machines instead of scores of cylinders, and not have it pay off.

Government intervention could alleviate the cautiousness. “Government could help to eliminate some risk as done in Finland. Unfortunately, government does not have enough money either,” said Pikulik.

Mills in developing countries have not had to add on, said Ingram. They had best available technology built in. Scandinavians have better equipment and newer technology, said Ingram, because of the tax situation. “Scandinavians will walk away from mills that are newer than ones we’re running.”

The industry might also see more new equipment if there were more ownership within the industry. Unlike the petrochemical industry that often develops, designs and builds its own equipment, and where the owners are very proud of their inventions, paper makers no longer do that. “Now we have only two or three machine builders in the industry,” said Pikulik “and they don’t always have the same interests.”

For machine builders, the designs have to be viable and profitable. The problem is that the inventions are very quickly copied. You can protect the design with a patent, but a patent does not go far, Pikulik cautioned. The dilution head-box is a good example. All suppliers now have dilution technology. “In some areas of design, like drying for example, there is little incentive to offer new technology. If it works the competition would come along to copy the design, and perhaps improve upon it.”

Infusion of ideas

It is obvious that certain improvements would be beneficial but are we talking necessity. Does existing equipment meet the needs of the industry? Is it up to par?

There was no consensus. On a somewhat positive note Pikulik said, “There are paper machines that are 50 years old that are paid for. Quality is good, though uniformity may leave something to be desired.”

On the other hand, machines may be paid up, but the operating costs are high. “It’s the only equipment we have,” said Eamer, “but are we at minimum cost? No. So no it is not meeting our short-term needs.”

Overall, the technical equipment used in North America is not up to par. “We are not using state-of-the-art equipment because we are not building new mills,” said Eamer. “North America is starting to lose that race.”

The key to getting the best out of the equipment we do use is the human implementation and manipulation. “There is quite a wide gap between the very best performance on similar equipment and average performance,” said Eamer. It’s not the equipment, but the people who use it.

The industry would benefit form an infusion of ideas from other industries. “We tend to rely on suppliers to look at other industries,” said Eamer. However, the paper industry has to look at the more sophisticated expert systems, best practices and supply chain management (see sidebar) successfully employed in other industries.

Eamer said that the industry needs to listen to its customers more and bring their needs back into the shops. This strategy is used in other industries and is known as a customer pull mode. Traditionally, the paper industry makes the product and pushes it into the market. “What is more effective is if we know what the customer wants and they pull it out of us.” More of this is happening, he said, but the process needs to be accelerated.

Domtar is using new strategies. Eamer said the company is looking at better business systems, and better base electronic management to assess where the value is and how to give better customer service.

Ingram said the industry in BC is still hampered and haunted by its dismal financial performance. But he believes that “the Canadian industry is well-educated in (the latest) pulp and paper technology. We evaluate them as they come along. But we can’t buy it. We continually have a capital plan, and look for capital improvements…. But nobody, especially in BC, has the money… When we return to profitability we will be out buying again,” said Ingram.


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