The Proof is in the Data: Why The Perceptions About the Paper Industry are Wrong

by Mariana Sandin

The paper industry is dead. Or at least that’s what consumers are led to believe. As the world digitized, the news was filled with projected declines in paper consumption and subsequent revenue. Not only that, as more Americans believe climate change is real, the pulp and paper industry has become a target of energy consumption, sustainability and deforestation concerns. While such apprehensions are valid for any product category, visions of printed paper piled high in the recycle bin often leaves the pulp and paper industry’s reputation in tatters. And it’s time to reverse the stigma.

Here are four myths about the paper and how the new, data-driven pulp and paper industry really stacks up.

Myth: It’s a dying industry
Fact: Sales are up and the industry is thriving
According to reports, paper is a 19th century industry on the wane—and 25 years ago that was correct. However, paper prices are higher than they’ve been in years and specialty packaging is up. Additionally, as anti-plastic sentiment continues to grow, new opportunities will continue to arise. Today, about 60 percent of paper waste is recycled compared to just nine percent of plastics, putting paper firmly in the position to replace single use plastics, such as straws. These opportunities are paving the way for a new paper industry, allowing innovative mills to reposition themselves to produce fresh types of packaging products and increase return on capital.

In 2010, Fortress Paper purchased a closed pulp-based paper production mill with a goal of converting it to a dissolving pulp production facility. Dissolving pulp is manufactured in the mill and is then sent to textile customers where it is converted to rayon. To produce this pulp, Fortress installed completely new cooking equipment and cogeneration plant, but they found themselves in uncharted terrain. Fortress decided to leverage a data infrastructure to monitor all assets and with the influx of real-time data, they gained visibility into processes and overcame many challenges. By defining, measuring, analyzing, improving and controlling all parts of the plant floor, the plant now profitably produces 170,000 tons of dissolving pulp per year.

Myth: It’s antiquated
Fact: It’s ripe with new processes, new products and machines
When tablets became widely available, many predicted paper books, magazines and even greeting cards would fall by the wayside. However, there’s a sensory aspect to books and cards, and physical book sales are on the rise. While many mills are producing new items to meet changing demands, others are finding innovative ways to manufacture the products consumers know and love.

For one mill, reducing variability in pulp viscosity was critical to maintaining product quality. However, they lacked visibility into the digester, which affected downstream quality. Using operational data, they analyzed 8000 cooks and 450 million data points within a data infrastructure, and used that information to build a model that predicted outcomes based on current viscosity. Their goal is to provide operators with enough information to comply with product quality requirements before the furnish goes into the digester.

Myth: It’s not environmentally friendly
Fact: Resource usage is down and the industry is very efficient
When consumers think of paper, many think of excessive waste and environmental damage—but that’s simply not the case. Certified wood promotes sustainable forest management policies, and inventories on private timberlands, which provide more than 90 percent of the domestic wood and paper products, have increased nearly seven percent since 2008. Waste products, such as lignin, are used to generate power in paper mills, and close to 70 percent of waste is turned to energy. In addition, an estimated 65 percent of the fiber brought to recycling centers gets reused.

For every paper mill, energy consumption and conservation are imperative to operate profitability. Due to paper grade changes, production rates and time of year, Verso Paper’s Androscoggin mill experienced wide variances in water and energy pricing. With over 2000 tons per day of freesheet and ground wood coated paper, even small energy pricing changes resulted in hefty energy bills. By connecting the water and energy meters into a data infrastructure, they analyzed information to gain an understanding of present and future consumption. They reconfigured the water system to utilize water and energy when prices were optimal, resulting in a 20 percent reduction in cost. With the help of these insights, 80 percent of Verso’s mill energy requirements are now generated on-site using renewable resources.

Myth: It’s not tech savvy
Fact: It’s incredibly sophisticated
For years, the pulp and paper industry operated using antiquated systems and lacked data to gain operational visibility. However, changing demand and shifting consumer preferences have changed how mills operate. The first and most common production problem mills attempt to tackle is predictive maintenance. Reactive, or maintenance performed after equipment fails, can be 60 to 90 percent more expensive than predictive methods. After maintenance strategies, many mills work towards extracting more product from the same production footprint. While this can be more profitable, it’s far more challenging.

Klabin’s recently opened Puma plant, the largest ever industrial investment in the state of Parana, and produces 1.5 million tons of pulp per year. Klabin created a digital twin of plant operations, giving them complete visibility into the entire production line. Using models within the data infrastructure, Klabin stimulates production changes and schedules stops to improve production forecasts and process stability. By tweaking processes, Klabin has increased output by 3400 dry tons a year.

Consumers are seeing new, sustainable product options from the pulp and paper industry that span far beyond traditional perceptions. And it’s all thanks to the right combination of capital investments and data. As data has permeated mills, pulp and paper companies are finding new and innovative ways to meet consumer demand, increase sustainability and drive bottom line results.