Family-run European containerboard producer Progroup recently started up its brand new PM3 at a greenfield site in Sandersdorf-Brehna, Eastern Germany, which it describes as “one of the world’s most modern paper mills.” Despite the pandemic, the construction and assembly of the paper machine was carried out in record-breaking time: only 18 months. The introduction of the Voith-supplied machine increases the total production capacity of the company from 1.1 million metric tpy to 1.8 million metric tpy of containerboard.
The expansion adds to the company’s existing paper machines PM1 and PM2, which all go to support the 11 corrugated sheet production facilities dotted across Europe. And there’s more: the company recently announced it will build another 200,000 metric tpy corrugated sheetboard plant in Poland, bringing the total sheeting plants now to a dozen—and it plans to add one plant a year going into the future.
“This expansion is all part of our long-term strategy we call ‘Two 25’—a strategy where we basically double the size of the company every 10 years,” says CEO Jürgen Heindl. “We tend to grow our corrugated board market first and then add a new paper mill to support the growth. This is a strategy that has worked very well, as it gives us confidence in our investment.”
The strategy really has worked well; Progroup has invested some Euro 1.3 billion (US$1.54 billion) over the Two 25 strategy period (2016-2025), as the company has gone from a plan on a sheet of paper in 1991 to an industrial giant with an annual turnover of nearly US$1 billon. “This is a big volume of investment for a family business, so we have to be very confident in what we are doing,” adds Heindl.
THE VERY LATEST IN TECHNOLOGY
The new paper mill at Sandersdorf-Brehna is packed full to the brim with the latest technology from Voith. The company delivered the entire production line, including its BlueLine stock preparation with IntensaDrum Duo drum pulper, which will process almost 3,000 tons of paper a day. The XcelLine paper machine has a wire width of 10,000 mm and an operating speed of 1,600 m/min. Voith also supplied a TwinDrive double unwind allowing for fully automatic reel changes.
Continuing on the theme of confidence, Heindl says, “When you are investing in a paper mill you need to be very confident, as it will run for the next 50 or 60 years; you have to be sure that the technology is the very latest and will enable you to adapt quickly to market trends.
“I am very happy that we originally started the company with just a sheet of plain paper, and right from the beginning we have always invested in the latest technology, so we have no history of old or outdated machines. Yes, this makes it expensive at the beginning and challenging at times, but ultimately it pays over time, and this is a key element in our success story.”
Heindl says the company chose Voith as the supplier of PM3 because Progroup was looking for a machine that could handle the daily bread and butter of the company’s production of grades between 90-130 grams. “We needed a workhorse, something that could compete with older machines producing this product range. We already have PM1 that runs heavier grades up to 180 grams, and PM2 running lightweight grades from 60-85 grams; the new addition of PM3 means we are now covered in all areas.
“Importantly, all three machines are now located within 130 km of Berlin, which means we make major savings on transport costs and CO2 emissions as we can supply all our plants from one geographical point.”
The build and start-up in August last year went exceptionally well, says Heindl. “We had a record-breaking construction and erection time and, despite having 1,300 people on the mill site, we are pleased to say that we had not one case of COVID-19.
“The start-up went well—as anyone experienced in this business will tell you, it is always a mixture of heaven and hell—some excellent days when all is great, and then some terrible days when you are struggling. But now we are closely sticking to the start-up curve.”
In the latest update released, PM3 set a new production record of 50,000 metric tons for the month of January this year.
KEEPING AHEAD OF THE GAME
Progroup implements three main drivers across the company: sustainability, digitization, and the “new way of cooperation.” These drivers are immensely important to the way the company is run on a day-to-day basis.
The first driver, sustainability, can be described as the lifeblood of Progroup; it prides itself on being way ahead of the game in all areas of its production activities. “We adhere very strictly to our three drivers,” says Heindl, “and clearly, sustainability is number one. As an example, we have spent over 100 million Euros (US$118 million) on the new paper mill PM3 on efforts to protect the environment.
“One of our latest projects was in relation to water use. It is my firm belief that drinking water will become a very serious issue over the coming years. In central Europe the last three summers have been hot and dry, and we get more problems with drinking water here. It is a politically very sensitive issue.
“At Progroup we have put the effort in on water savings, and have cut our water consumption by 80 percent, which adds up to the usage of a city of 85,000 people per year. We are doing this by operating on a closed water loop on our PM1 and PM3 paper machines.”
The company also has major savings initiatives under the sustainability driver, including on energy, power, and steam and waste. It also produces its own biogas from water treatment plants, which adds up to a saving of 62,000 MW hours of natural gas per year.
Digitization has always been part of the group’s philosophy. Heindl says, “Since the very beginning with our first sheetfeeder plant, we have always seen fully automated, digital systems as the future. Bringing digitization into the paper mill is an essential part of our plan, and we are already using the very latest in IIoT technology, including AI. We are currently upgrading our computer systems to take them to the next level.
“We are gathering data and using it for quality management, as well as everything we can control in the production process, including energy management. We believe that automated processes will help to make a mill run much more efficiently.”
Progroup recently took delivery of the world’s first AI-based IQ Web Inspection system from Valmet for its PM2. The system provides the mill with the ability to combine data from multiple platforms in real-time, taking web inspection analytics to a new level.
The third driver is the “new way of cooperation,” which the onset of the coronavirus pandemic has brought to the fore. Progroup was already well along in the development of new ways to lead before the virus struck. Heindl explains, “Even before COVID-19, we were making changes to our internal way of managing and leading. With new communications technology everything has become different; there is much more digitization now, allowing for remote working and online conferencing.
“We have been using many of these new tools in the way we structure, control, and lead our organization. We can now control all our production units and facilities from one central dedicated office and have cemented this way of working into the Progroup culture. Nevertheless, nothing can substitute for personal contact. We stick to our philosophy that the management teams are regularly present at the production sites. The results prove that this keeps us ahead of the game.”