Automation Update: What Does the Future Hold?

From management to the mill floor, everyone has heard the buzzwords: Big Data. Cloud-based computing. Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). Data analytics. Advanced control systems. Industry 4.0. Yet these are no longer buzzwords—they’re a competitive reality in the pulp, paper, and packaging industries.

Manufacturers have always wanted their machines to do more, and as capabilities increase for better access to and management of information, pulp and paper companies are taking advantage of every opportunity to leverage data, analytics, and advanced process control. In an industry where much of the production is at commodity scale, automation technologies can give manufacturing companies a way to fine-tune each plant’s competitive goals without sacrificing the economies of scale. Does this mill, in this market, at this location, most need improved product consistency, or lower production costs? More efficient use of energy, or of fiber? Where is the tipping point between speed and quality? Automation technologies can gather, store, analyze, and interpret data more quickly and efficiently than ever, and offer new paths toward end-to-end optimization with an unprecedented level of connection between every system of the mill and every mill in the corporate system. Yet ultimately, it’s not about the data points themselves; it’s about how to make these data actionable, and there is no single answer.

To provide an update about how some of these disparate automation technologies are being used in our industry—and what the future may bring—Paper360° surveyed some of our industry’s leading automation vendors. Their subject-matter experts share their answers here.

Our Expert Respondents
We asked each of several vendors specializing in various types of automation geared specifically toward the pulp and paper industry to select subject matter experts to respond to our questions. Respondents from each company were:
• ABB: Steven St. Jarre, head of business development, Pulp and Paper, Process Industries, ABB.
• Siemens: Dr. Hermann Schwarz, product manager, Smart Controls and Innovation FI (Fiber Industry).
• Valmet: Jari Almi, director, Industrial Internet; Arttu-Matti Matinlauri, director, analytics and application development, Valmet Industrial Internet; and David Eapen, manager, Valmet Industrial Internet, North America.
• Voith: The team of respondents included David Buchanan, president, Voith Paper North America; Michael Rhodes, senior vice president sales North America, Voith Digital Ventures; and Kevin Whitfield, account executive North America, Voith Digital Ventures.

Paper360°: What performance improvements or other benefits are your mill customers asking for most?

Voith: We’re now entering an era where pulp and paper manufacturers can seamlessly tie together their operations, as well as find synergies in their operations and their maintenance efforts. Essentially, they are looking to an automated future that helps them deal with a workforce that is dynamically changing because of a generational shift in experience and technical know-how.
Siemens: Our customers’ expectation for digitalization is to get more transparency; higher performance with fewer shutdowns, for instance; energy efficiency; and a reliably high level of quality with increased flexibility.

ABB: Our customers are asking for help to reduce costs such as raw materials and energy, and also to increase production of products that are within quality specifications, using their existing production assets. They (and we) see the opportunity to leverage data, analytics, and advanced control schemes to accomplish this, in part by using more available inputs, and by optimizing the balance among the objectives—for example, between quality specifications and cost to produce.

In addition, our customers focus a lot on how technology can make people more effective and are inviting us to help make that happen. A related concern they have is how to attract key talent into the industry, and the role digitalization may play in that.

Valmet: Industry customers today are looking for wider solutions combining automation, cloud-based analytics solutions, and machine technology for end-to-end process optimization from the woodyard all the way to the converted end-product. Coping with sometimes conflicting operational targets between departments has created an increasing need for tools to handle the task of coordinating process optimization across departments. For many mills, the problems have become too complex to handle and the lack of decisions in real time, 24/7, means they do not meet their full potential.

What has been the biggest challenge in developing data/automation systems for the pulp and paper industry? How can mills get the most from these systems?

Siemens: There is no general challenge in developing data systems. Because existing pulp and paper mills operate on different digitalization levels, our approach is to perform a maturity check in cooperation with the production sites.

By bringing together different mill representatives—from the high to low production level and over the life cycle of the production and the products—we can define the present digitalization status of production, give everyone a shared understanding, and calculate the benefits for digitalization solutions such as big data handling, predictive process controls, and overall access, for instance. Based on that, a roadmap for digitalization will be developed and tracked.

The question of how mills can best use data systems cannot be answered in general. In our experience, we get the best results by starting with the maturity check approach.

Voith: The structuring of the various disparate data sources coming to facility operators is a tremendous issue for the paper industry. In fact, it’s an issue for every industry that’s collecting data on their operations. It is all about making this information useful, and that’s where analysis and situational, fact-based decision-making become the next steps in the process. We address this challenge through condition monitoring programs and sensors that measure the performance of paper mill machinery and allow the mills to make informed choices on their operation and maintenance.

There are two critical factors that mills must consider when they begin collecting data on their operations. First, they need to know what they want to accomplish with the information they’ve gathered. They need to attempt to define that goal early on so they get the data they need in a secure manner. Secondly, mills must think about the transformation of their workforce by including their employees in the process of data collecting and training for the new generation of technology.

Valmet: The biggest challenge today is the lack of a standardized data architecture that leads to mill-specific systems and data integration projects. In many cases, the pulp and paper industry’s process and manufacturing data structures are machine- and mill-specific—for example, process tag naming methods, IT/OT protocols, and lab measurement methodologies vary based on local conventions.

“By bringing together different mill representatives we can define the digitalization status of production, give everyone a shared understanding, and calculate the benefits for digitalization solutions.” Photo courtesy of Siemens.

The industry would benefit from a common ecosystem approach to data architecture, with established data interfaces and clearly described data structures that are well-defined within the industry. This would enable the further evolution of a mill “data lake,” where data are analyzed across different systems that can then use it for holistic data analytics, machine learning, and prescriptive modeling. Analyzing the integrated data from different systems with intelligent algorithms—and then returning the results to the automation system to be used by the operators and advanced process controls—allows the mill to be run with decisions made based on real-time insights and predictions.

ABB: A key challenge is making effective use of the huge volumes of data already being collected, even from multiple systems with different data formats and communication methods, across various networks and firewalls. Deep experience with secure remote connection methods and cyber security is a must.

Another challenge in this area is varying degrees of openness from customers about access to their data. All customers value confidentiality, of course, but there is a wide range of approaches to protecting their data assets. We believe it is important to respect customers’ ownership of their data, and to demonstrate experience in treating it securely.

We think the most value from data systems is derived by combining subject matter expertise, analytics, and artificial intelligence technologies with advanced automation to obtain tangible and specific cost savings, production increases, and consistent quality. Using analytics that effectively expose exceptions and provide real-time advice is also key to engaging personnel effectively in making decisions or taking actions, leaving the most important decisions to humans and automating other ones.

What is the biggest mistake mills make when implementing data systems?

Valmet: Historically, data systems have been silo-ed in their own data areas with limited exchange of data between the systems. When implementing new systems, mills should avoid new systems with separate, application-specific data repositories that use different technologies for accessing and visualizing data. Implementing a cloud platform (e.g. AWS or Microsoft Azure or Google Cloud) does not automatically mean that the mill has a unified data system architecture.

The data lake approach also leads to discussion related to on-premise and cloud-based data within the pulp and paper industry. Performing data analytics in the cloud makes perfect sense in many cases because it enables lower processing costs and ensures data models and software are always up-to-date. Yet this does not mean that all data systems move to the cloud: The closer to the machine the system operates (such as DCS, etc.), the more critical the latency and security of control operations are.

Voith: One of the biggest challenges we see some paper mills face is that they are trying to address a very specific issue that they’ve identified in a localized case. They might think they only need to solve the problem with Machine X; we help them see how multiple issues lead not only to problems with Machine X, but also tie into lost efficiencies on Machines X, Y, and Z. They need to see the potential available to them and determine what the evolution of information-gathering and automation can truly mean to their operation as a whole.

If mills don’t take that step back, then they can give up too quickly and never see the full-potential ROI. We recommend they push over the breakwaters and scale up their findings. Mills that look at their options holistically, and not just as short-term fixes, are the mills that see the most success.

What data technology does your company have coming down the pipeline that you’re really excited about? How can this help mills remain competitive?

ABB: We are focused on making our huge portfolio of software more harmonious, as advanced process and production management applications that provide the benefits that mills are asking for. This is blurring or even eliminating the boundaries between process control and business systems, enabling them to work together to serve the business objectives.

We are also focused on use of digital “twins” and augmented reality to provide customers with an improved service experience and to help them to visualize their process performance in more effective ways. Enabling technologies are progressing quickly in this area.

Siemens: Based on the fiber industry customer status related to digitalization, we offer a whole solution: from field device via DCS, smart controls, and MES/MIS systems that are connected to our open IIoT MindSphere Cloud platform and could also be designed and work on premise as well. For this, we and our partners provide apps working on MindSphere.

Due to the fact that it is an open Industrial Internet of Things, it enables customers to generate their own app. Overarching that, we provide process performance analytic and dashboard systems that connect all different kinds of mill database systems stored on different silos with XHQ, for instance, that are real-time data simplified and combine business- and process-related data on one dashboard. This brings decision makers into the picture within a short time.

Voith: Our customers want guidance on their operational choices and manufacturing decisions. Voith’s OnCumulus IIoT platform, which serves as their data hub, provides fast, reliable, and secure access to data from local machines and systems in the Cloud. To take it a step further, we can use building block applications such as our OnEfficiency and OnCare applications that run on OnCumulus.

With OnEfficiency, we can focus on specific topics such as sheet strength and build up to a complete suite of monitoring and visualizing many key variables on the machine and its supporting systems such as stock preparation. OnEfficiency focuses on optimizing performance through use of parameters, advanced algorithms, and advanced sensors that can measure aspects of interest that traditional sensors cannot measure. OnCare, meanwhile, monitors and optimizes maintenance needs with the aim of decreasing unplanned downtime.

These programs allow mills to understand their processes better. We’re not selling a new process to them; we’re letting them see their operation clearly so that they can engage in the process of continuous improvement.

Valmet: At Valmet, we have identified the need for scalable solutions that can be implemented to mills fast and easily, but still configured to meet local needs. We are constantly working with advanced automation and Industrial Internet solutions that use the most cutting-edge technology and know-how.

Data-driven analytics can play a big role in ensuring mills stay competitive. Mills in North America are dealing with many of their most experienced operators and plant personnel retiring over the next five years, and it can be a challenge to fill the resulting experience gap. The potential worst-case scenario is unsafe work practices and operation. Together with customers, we are deploying data-driven advanced analytics tools that provide operators and plant personnel with intelligent, easy to understand predictive and real-time insights that enable safe operation, monitoring, and optimization of mill performance. These tools can fill some of the gaps, shorten the learning curve, and empower personnel to make decisions resulting in more safe and efficient operation. The tools are mobile, which means they can be accessed from any web device (phones, tablets, laptops), and are control system independent.

To illustrate the impact that various automation technologies can have in the mill, we asked our respondents to provide a capsule success story—a brief look at how they’ve helped a customer in the pulp, paper, or packaging industry. Here’s what they shared.

ABB: Collaboration is Key
A major mill in Indonesia applied the ABB Ability Collaborative Operations approach to achieve substantial results. Reductions in the effort needed to use the process controls more effectively were enormous, such as reducing overall loop tuning effort by nearly 75 percent. More importantly, the mill was able to achieve increased production, reduced chemical costs, reduced ash variation, and accelerated grade changes, all by using a service-based approach to advanced process control.

ABB delivered the solution as a connected service instead of a software package with a finite commissioning period. This resulted in more saleable product and higher equipment availability. ABB offers three Collaborative Operations centers dedicated to pulp and paper, serving customers around the world.

Valmet: Better than Best Practice
An integrated pulp and paper mill had unidentified problems with achieving good runnability and end-product quality—even though they were running according to best practice. The problems were pinpointed to variability in pulp quality to stock preparation from the high consistency tower as well as how the stock preparation and paper machine were operated.

The solution developed needed a mill-wide solution. First, a target level for pulp quality was defined based on a historical operations performance analysis. After the target level was set, the pulp mill production was analyzed based on data. This was a complex process ending up with APC (advanced process control) and a better understanding of the bottleneck levels. With the target level production set, Valmet helped the mill analyze how often a good level of pulp was achieved. As the figure was not near 100 percent, the next action was to ensure best operating parameters depending on the target grade and quality as well as the raw material. This was first developed as a predictive analytics operator advisory solution, but quite soon the mill started trusting it so much that they wanted it integrated in the Valmet DNA automation system.

Voith: Board Mills Stabilize Strength
A board and packaging mill in North America installed Voith’s OnEfficiency.Strength, which helps stabilize strength fluctuations in the machine direction using statistical models and advanced sensors. In this specific case, the application was installed to fully utilize the strength potential of the raw material—OCC. Using a virtual sensor to display the actual strength of the board online, the jet/wire ratio was used as an actuator to compensate a reduced basis weight maintaining the strength level. The result was 1.7 metric tons fiber saving per hour, totaling more than 13,000 metric tons per year.

A second example is from a mill in Europe producing copy paper. By reducing basis weight and increasing the ash content, the mill saved more than 2,500 metric tons of virgin fiber per year. The most important parameter with this is stiffness; therefore, a virtual stiffness sensor was used to control basis weight and ash content.

As a result, the mill can now run its PM more efficiently and achieve target quality with fewer breaks and less fiber. Analyzer measurements were added to better understand the quality of incoming pulp, so that even more efficient optimization models can be developed.

YP PERSPECTIVE: Automation Can Foster Growth, Connection—If Managed with Transparency

The pulp and paper industry is increasing its implementation of new technologies—but it is unclear if young professionals (YPs) view it this way. I do think implementing new technology is very helpful in the utilization and retention of YPs. The problem we are facing in our industry is the speed at which new technology is being implemented. Although new technology is increasingly used, the process of implementation is slow. This can be a deterrent to YPs given how rapidly technology is advancing. When an innovation project gets approved, many times the technology has already advanced beyond the scope of the original project.

Kim Cowan, Pulmac Systems

YPs also tend to take advantage of growth opportunities. With internal promotions and horizontal transfers, these innovative projects lose their “champions” and the project is dropped prior to approval. YPs thrive in an environment that is innovative and adaptive, an environment where we can effect change. If management and corporate leadership can make these approval processes more transparent, it may be more affirming and provide encouragement to the project lead.

The most rewarding and exciting technologies are those that help to connect variables in “the process” (whatever that process may be). These connections create a context for the work we do every day. It also helps us define our role within the company, which provides validation.
Kim Cowan is customer service manager, Pulmac Systems, and a member of TAPPI’s Young Professionals Division.