Whether for a rebuild or conversion project, or for scheduled maintenance, every mill outage requires a tremendous amount of resources, including skilled labor. In regions with a high concentration of manufacturing facilities, high demand for resources can leave mill managers, contractors, and labor unions scrambling to meet demand.
For mills in the paper-centric Wisconsin-Minnesota-Michigan Upper Peninsula (WI-MN-UP) area, a new website called OutagePlanner.com provides a collaborative planning tool. Paper360° spoke with the site’s developer and some mill users to find out how it works.
San Francisco-based web developer Carol Scott is OutagePlanner.com CEO and general manager. Last year, a group of contractors from the WI-MN-UP area contacted her about the shortage of highly specialized labor in the region. They proposed an industry-powered, online platform that would allow mills and plant managers to input the estimated dates, safety requirements, and the type of craft workers needed for upcoming outages well in advance, so that the contractors and union locals would be able to foresee any upcoming problems or conflicts.
“We arranged a meeting in Wausau, WI, in April of this year with mill mangers, labor union representatives, and contractors. I presented the site and did a walk-through—and people immediately began using it. The site creates a connection between these three groups: the mills, the contractors, and labor,” Scott explains.
Mills can join the site for free; contractors and union locals pay a fee to participate. Mills can add the dates, labor requirements, safety requirements, and other information about their planned outages. Email updates alert all users when information is added or edited.
“Typically, pulp and paper outages and rebuilds draw upon considerable construction and technical resources to execute,” says Lorin E. Martin, director, engineering and capital at Verso Corporation. “We all want the very best resources possible for our outages, but if we are sharing them across two or three outages taking place at the same time, chances are someone will end up short. The ability to review currently scheduled pulp and paper outages in OutagePlanner.com may allow owners to position their outages to possibly avoid resource constraints.”
Labor shortages can also create big problems for contractors, Scott says. “If there are two big outages in the same area, that jeopardizes the budget and the project deadlines—it can be a very costly situation.”
We also spoke with a maintenance manager at a Wisconsin mill who has used the site. “Let’s say I need a 15-day outage for a total rebuild on a paper machine, and I need 100 welders, 100 pipefitters, whatever the craft required—in the past, we’d just choose our date,” he says. “This gives us an opportunity to preplan. In our region, if there’s a major outage at another paper mill—or even in another industry—that is going to draw from the same union halls, use of technical support, or key industry vendors, we can make an educated decision on the exact dates knowing those resources will have already been committed elsewhere. It helps us know ahead of time what we’re going to be up against. If you plan way in advance, you can be first at the table.”
Scott is excited to see how the pilot site grows. “There’s a lot of energy around collaboration. What’s really cool about it is that all three parties—mills, contractors, and labor—are connecting and communicating in a way that they may not have been doing before,” she says.
Mills can register for no cost at OutagePlanner.com; contractors, union locals, trade groups, and vendors can find information about becoming “member sponsors.” Right now, the site is most useful to facilities and companies in the WI-MN-UP region, but Scott sees potential for outageplanner.com to spread to other regions with “a critical mass” of mills, contractors, and labor. Those interested can contact her at [email protected].