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Updating PM’s – retrofits for productivity improvement

If the money is tight and the future uncertain, the temptation to lay low might be overwhelming. And it's no different in the pulp and paper industry that is still bruised from the challenges of the p...

October 1, 2006  By Pulp & Paper Canada

Sammy Di R

If the money is tight and the future uncertain, the temptation to lay low might be overwhelming. And it’s no different in the pulp and paper industry that is still bruised from the challenges of the past few years. It seems that only when the market is profitable, do investments and projects with greater scope take place. However, the forces that control international economic factors rarely stay dormant and the danger of not acknowledging the need to stay competitive directly contributes to the negative impact on the bottom line.

“Mills should be investing to improve their competitiveness through productivity increases or strategic moves,” noted Sammy Di R, Voith’s regional sales manager for eastern Canada. “For example, if you’re a newsprint producer and are not in the top quartile for low production cost, you need to figure out how to get there or look into converting to new grades.”

Forward-looking owners understand the need to go beyond regular maintenance practices. The mills are inevitably ageing and need more than superficial upgrading.


So is anything being done?

Fortunately, the answer is positive although the size of each individual project is guided by the goal of the company and the condition of the existing papermachine. Often the goals are limited, due to the condition of the paper machine. Some goals would require an extremely hefty investment into the upgrade, therefore a positive ROI would be difficult to achieve.

Two other conditions have a serious impact on potential projects; the financial situation of the company and/or the expected reaction of the investment market (financial analysts).

According to major suppliers and capital expenditure reports, rebuilds during the last five years have focused on paper quality improvements, on reducing breaks on the machine and making paper of lower basis weight but without loss of strength. Di R explains the latter as being due, in large part, to increasing postal costs that are having a direct impact on the costs of mailing and therefore prompting the need for weight reduction.

“The market dictates what is required,” said Di R of the projects in which the owners have decided to invest.

There are few large projects on the horizon. Down the line, there is the possibility of the Kruger Trois Rivires deinking project, as revealed by government officials who are working on the details with the company. Although the project is in the works and an official announcement by Kruger has not yet been made, the plant is expected to meet increasing market demand for paper made from recycled fibre.

Some mills are converting their paper machines to different products in order to better reflect the consumers’ needs. One prime example of this would be AV Nackawic (see PPC, September 2006) which is changing from hardwood pulp to dissolving pulp. Another strategic change was at Alma, where the mill converted from being a newsprint producer to making groundwood grades. The upgrade and addition of a film coater at Cascades’ St. Jerome mill increased flexibility by allowing the mill to make coated paper and break into a new market. Cascades also states that the major investments made over the past few years have made Fibres Breakey’s pulp very competitive with bleached virgin pulp.

The most positive stories must include an account of Neucel in BC. Newly opened in May of this year, 350 jobs returned to Port Alice after the initial investment of $60 million which is only part of the $100 planned. Thorsten Brost, the general manager of Neucel, confirmed that much of the work had been done, including the purchase of an IMPCO wash press from Georgia Pacific in Camas, WA. The wash press will allow Neucel to process a higher grade of pulp than was previously possible and increase capacity while allowing the mill to enter the more lucrative high-grade pulp markets. The major projects such as work on the recover boiler, hog boiler, Peco log lift and aeration basin are on schedule. Some of the older equipment needs more work to improve efficiency. Brost admits that it is difficult to draw the line since, in some sense, there is still down time needed in opportune chunks to continue upgrades. As Brost says, “The mill will always be challenging the status quo.”

However, many of the projects have been of a more moderate nature, concentrating on increasing productivity (in the sense of reducing the cost per tonne) or improving the quality of the existing line. As this type of rebuild requires more engineering redesign as opposed to routine maintenance, the mills often call on the outside expertise and the collaboration of suppliers for assistance or equipment cost estimates. If they are ready to invest in a project, they will confer with the supplier about their goals and objectives, and then discuss options.

Di R agrees and says that this kind of call is the most frequent type that he receives. “This can be for a variety of reasons,” he says, taking headboxes as an example. “The headbox could be old and corroding, there could be an identifiable weakness in the process, they could have a bad basis weight profile and not know why, and so we come in, analyze, ask for paper samples and determine the cause. We might have to make modifications to the equipment/paper machine section or replace it completely.”

Of the various mills that have recently taken this step are Abitibi-Consolidated’s Mackenzie (BC) and Clermont (QC) mills, Atlantic Packaging’s Scarborough (ON) mill, Bowater’s Dolbeau (QC) mill and Kruger’s Corner Brook (NF) mill.

Abitibi-Consolidated’s Mackenzie mill, for instance, decided to replace their headbox with a new Voith dilution-profiling box and do a top wire run modification to improve runnability with less sheet breaks. Brad Pelley, general manager, explained that this decision was taken to address both quality and production issues. “We expect to increase production by 10%,” he stated. “The mill will be shut down for six days, in December, for the rebuild.”

According to Gerry Murray, director of mill operations at Atlantic Packaging, the project included not only a new headbox from Voith, but also a former rebuild. “Quality was the main driver,” said Murray, “improved cross direction profile, increased drainage capacity and reduced headbox consistency.” He described the work performed in December of last year and said that the project entailed having the mill down for seven days since it also included extending the drainage table, installing new whitewater trays, improved foils, and dilution screen and pump.

As the justification for their new project, the Technocell mill in Drummondville, QC, wanted to be sure to reach their desired shaking frequency on the Fourdrinier without vibration transmission to the foundation and without mechanical breakdown while increasing drainage. The purchase of a DuoShake from Voith allowed for reliable production at the desired shaking frequency.

The result has been a noticeable improvement in production and the new unit is performing well. “It gives us an additional tool to adjust the hydro-expansion profile for the sheet for the different needs of our customers,” stated Marco Veilleux, director of production. “The unit is reliable and is not even an area of discussion due to the large window of operation we have with it. Not being a topic of discussion and almost forgetting about the equipment is the best measure of success for me.”

In order to reach their goal, Norampac’s Cabano mill in Quebec focused on another challenge and undertook a different route. “We split the first dryer section (12 dryers) into two sections and installed a new baby dryer,” described Marco Bernier, production superintendent. “We also installed two pressrun blow boxes and two high speed blow boxes in the first section to better support the sheet.” The work included the installation of a shower to keep the first dryer felt clean. “We decided to embark on this project with Metso in the beginning of 2005 because we need to invest in order to produce more
lightweight paper,” explained Bernier. “Now we can produce lightweight paper without reducing machine speed when there is a sheet break. It took eight months to optimize the equipment. In August, the efficiency seamed to increase, but we will have to wait a few months to confirm.

“We will install a new GL&V hydraulic headbox in mid-September,” Bernier continued. “We feel confident that those two projects combined will help us a lot to increase the speed of the machine and its efficiency.”

Abitibi-Consolidated’s Clermont mill decided to embark on a retrofit when, according to HP Loc at the mill, they realized that the basis weight profile in zoom format had a big gap from peak to peak and that they could not correct the problem with the existing thermal rods profile control system. He described it, in detail, as follows:

“The project was called PM5 retrofit dilution headbox and we installed a Metso dilution box which was inserted between the existing tapered header and headbox. This piece has 99 dilution zones of 90 mm wide including 99 dilution valves with actuators. The control software will be linked to the existing Honeywell Profile Control System. The process white water from the off-machine silo will be injected into the dilution zones in order to control the stock consistency profile across the machine instead of the old upper slice lip profile control. The existing upper slice lip will also be changed for a new one which will be kept straight and parallel to the apron. A new variable speed double suction Sulzer pump and a GL&V model M-24 pressurized screen are also installed to the feed white water. The installation of the Sulzer pump, GL&V screen, piping and electricity has been begun since the middle of August. The installation of the dilution box is planned for a three-day shutdown at the mill, beginning October 30. The project budget was approximately $4 million and was justified as quality improvement. In order to improve the headbox surrounding area, a Metso mist eliminating system will be also installed on the headbox.

“We will have the results at the end of this year, after completion of the project and start-up of the new equipment,” said Loc. “The expected targets are to improve basis weight, moisture and dry weight CD profiles, improve TSO and TSI, improve machine efficiency and to have fewer edge cracks.”

The second quarter annual report for Abitibi-Consolidated also reported that the Belgo mill made a significant shift from their newsprint machine to commercial printing paper grades. The annual production capacity of this machine is approximately 100,000 tonnes.

Over the past 10 years, the former FF Soucy newsprint mill invested many millions of dollars to increase its productivity and lower its production costs. Since 2004, White Birch will have invested $7.4 million on two projects: one on automation and the latest, being completed now, at a cost of $6 million. According to Franois D’Amours, production manager, it was necessary to lower the mill’s energy costs (especially since the latest costs spiral). Therefore, the company decided to modernize the refining section by installing new low-consistency refiners, which will allow the mill to add a third refining stage and transform wood chips at lower energy costs. The new equipment (supplier was not identified) should be operational before the end of 2006.

Pointing out that the newsprint market is getting tougher every year, D’Amours said that the Rivire-du-Loup mill (220 km east of Quebec City) is looking at diversification to keep its head above water, but only on a mid to long-term basis. White Birch would most likely integrate grades of added value paper to its newsprint production (250 000 tpy).

At the same time as announcing the permanent closure of Hinton’s #1 pulp machine and wood room, West Fraser stated that it had earmarked $20 million for the upgrade of the remaining pulp machine. The upgrade is expected to be completed in the second quarter of 2007. According to the annual report, after completion of the closures (during the fourth quarter of 2006) and the upgrade, the annual capacity of the mill will be reduced by approximately 70,000 to 350,000 tonnes.

Bowater’s Dolbeau paper mill experienced an improvement in quality due to more uniform basis weight control with the installation of new headbox from Voith.


In the future await many more updates and retrofits for the mills across the country, many just waiting for more favourable conditions before committing themselves.

Of the 17 CEOs of forest, paper and packaging companies interviewed by PricewaterhouseCoopers for their recent survey, most CEOs reported the need to focus on improving returns, especially in the markets for paper products, where some segments are growing strongly while others are declining. The survey pointed out that the CEOs agreed further industry consolidations were essential for producers to generate consistently acceptable returns; these changes in ownership will no doubt have an impact on which mills are sounder investments.

In the recent deal with Weyerhaeuser, Domtar acquired the Kamloops mill which was originally built in 1965. This mill converts wood by-products from local lumber mills into premium paper grade cellulose fibre but, according to Kevin Mason of Equity Research Associates, the mill is in need of upgrades that will cost up to $200 million. He pointed out the mill’s two ageing boilers as examples of equipment that needs to be replaced soon since they are both well over 30 years old. Although reportedly, Weyerhaeuser had approached the town for tax breaks and started investigating the cost-benefit of upgrading the mill, it now rests in the ‘new’ Domtar’s hands to make the final judgement.

How to make those difficult decisions?

“It’s not only a matter of money when it comes to rebuilds but, rather, what needs to be done. Define your needs and goals,” recommended Di R. “Estimate the [project] cost to accomplish those goals, calculate the ROI and decide whether or not your goals are feasible. If not, revise your goals and start the process over again.

“In all industries, the paper industry being no exception, timely investments are part of doing good business,” concluded Di R.

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