R&D in the Pulp and Paper Industry: To Innovate, Cooperate

The scientific method hasn’t much changed in hundreds of years—yet in the pulp and paper industry, the method of actually getting science done has changed significantly in the past decade or two alone.

Beth Cormier has spent 30 years in the paper industry, most in a research and development capacity; she is now vice president-R&D, innovation for Sappi North America. Cormier says that she has seen a shift in the amount of research, from producer and supplier networks, focused in traditional areas.

As industries mature, margins thin, and you’ve got to be more creative with research dollars. What that means—at least for Sappi, which has maintained a robust research capacity—is that we need to look for additional partners, we need to look for ways to supplement what used to be there on the supplier side, and we need to find better ways to get research done. That’s a big shift.”

The industry’s economic struggles of the past 10 years may have stressed R&D resources, but it also forced researchers to look more deeply at the potential locked inside industry materials. “People are discovering that the tree and its fibers are a fantastic material not only for communication paper, but for different applications, many of which have not been explored enough over the past decades to make sure we penetrate new markets,” says Jean Hamel, vice president, pulp, paper and bioproducts at FPInnovations, a Canadian research organization for the forest products industry. “This is essentially the only natural material available on the planet that captures solar energy, that captures carbon, that manufactures molecules and materials. That realization has been one big change over the last few years: that there is huge potential for the forest products industry.”

Cormier agrees that biomaterials present an area of great opportunity—“but there is a tremendous amount of opportunity in developing next-generation solutions for our core products as well,” she adds. “We’ve been making paper products in a similar way for more than 100 years. There must be next-generation solutions for platforms that can help the whole industry—like wood yield, for example. I hope we keep a balance as an industry. We need both, and both can bring lots of improved sustainability and profit.”

Notes Hamel, “It’s easy to see the potential, but realizing that potential is really what R&D is facing. We’re not only talking about R&D, we’re talking about innovation. This doesn’t mean that you’re not doing science, or you’re not doing research; it means that R&D must be framed into the innovation process.”

This may require companies to change their approach. That’s what FPInnovations did. Once a traditional R&D organization, Hamel says they’re working to shift focus toward implementation.

We have learned to develop around the disciplines of innovation—it’s not only about science, but about, for example, making sure you have champions to carry the technology from one end to the other, or recognizing the barriers to innovation. FPInnovations remains a strong science-based organization, but we are integrating that science into a much wider innovation process by adding several other disciplines—like concurrent market research—to R&D and aligning our efforts with other organizations,” he says.

If we’re serious about advancing technology in a big way, those next-generation ideas and concepts are going to come through partnerships—they’re not going to come from a single company,” Cormier concludes. “I believe that innovation happens at the intersections of things. Whether it’s the intersection of two molecules, or two chemicals that react in a surprising way; or whether it’s the interaction of two companies that bring different viewpoints and different capabilities… that’s where the good stuff happens.”

The following suite of articles focuses on industry research and development, with an eye on innovation. In all three articles, one unifying theme emerges: for industry R&D, partnerships are critical to success.

Editor’s note: Beth Cormier and Jean Hamel are members of TAPPI’s International Research Management Committee (IRMC.) The IRMC will hold its annual conference in October 2017. To learn more about the committee, contact Colleen Walker at [email protected].

Photo by Glenn Ostle