In the springtime of 2020, paper mills from coast to coast in North America were hit with an “unnatural disaster” at the same moment. This COVID-19 invisible storm disrupted start-up plans for many Valmet customers launching new paper machines and rebuilds.
Startups require comprehensive planning. They call for a specific sequence of actions, directed by teams on-site prepared to deal with surprises as they arise. So what happens when schedules are in flux and the experts needed to make everything run smoothly are restricted from being on-site?
Somehow, after months of working in odd and sometimes chaotic circumstances, several startups are now complete or finishing smoothly. Expectations for each project continue to be met. How could this be possible when normal life was on hold and longstanding practices could not take place? These teams found new ways forward on a daily basis. What stood in the way became the way.
The following cases offer insight into some of the challenges mills faced during COVID-19. These start-up stories are evolving even today.
IT’S WHAT’S IN THE HEADBOX THAT COUNTS
Start-up: Oct. 2
Project manager: Mikko Iitti
For one mill in the US Southeast, a 55-yearold headbox on PM19 limited quality improvements for the company’s liquid packaging products. The mill chose Valmet to upgrade with an OptiFlo Fourdrinier headbox with an external attenuator, as well as a dilution screen and pump, approach flow piping, and FormMaster dewatering elements. They also wanted to reduce the amount of wood fiber, yet continue to meet the same sheet quality parameters.
According to Mikko Iitti, US project manager, COVID-19 challenges demanded close attention to scheduling and logistics. “We found a way to bring in key resources from abroad to support our local team. During these challenging times, it was a joy to see our groups working together with the customer in a traditional way. Of course, this customer made many adjustments during the pandemic, including practices that we followed.”
Communication, including scheduled MS Team sessions and on-demand support, was actually a safety benefit. From a project management standpoint, the mindset of being open to change was important.
Iitti notes that improved reel edges and a wider usable sheet now allow more efficient use of the paper reel and less waste. Faster grade changes with dilution control reduce the amount of off-quality product during grade changes.
OVERSEAS EXPERTS KEEP PROJECT JETTING ALONG
Start-up: Oct. 4
Project Manager: Joe Lambie
COVID-19 hit the US at the time of start-up for the new kraftliner board machine as part of one large customer’s capital project, which replaced three existing production lines with one bigger machine at a mill in the Southern US. The project also included stock preparation, an approach flow system, winder, automation package, and air systems.
For a project of this scale, experts from Finland were scheduled to be on-site. Yet the US borders were closed and commercial flights were grounded. Joe Lambie, project manager, needed to find solutions that were not readily apparent.
“The customer’s corporate management team was determined to get (Valmet’s Finland-based) team to the mill, combining with our local people, as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening,” says Lambie. “This meant going far outside the box for them and us, especially with extreme measures being put in place at the mill for COVID-19.”
The customer offered the use of its corporate jets when initially bringing NA team resources to the site, Lambie explains. “This helped limit the travel risk during the early pandemic, when little was known. This provided convenience and comfort to Valmet employees Nick Goldsmith, Tim Engler, and Garrett Mitchell, who were being asked to step into the unknown.”
While the North American team was manning the site and moving the project forward, Valmet worked with its customer’s corporate management—as well as with the mill’s local state officials—to seek travel approval for Valmet’s global resources. After many failed attempts, the team finally reached the right people and submitted travel waiver requests. “The requests were granted, and we were now faced with how to get our global resources to the US when so many commercial flights were unavailable,” says Lambie.
“Valmet and the customer worked together to secure a charter flight from Helsinki to Atlanta. Later, when approvals were in place to bring Finnish colleagues back to the mill, the customer’s corporate team again stepped up and agreed to support the cost of chartering a jet from Helsinki to Atlanta. Greeting our team in Atlanta, their corporate jets directly flew them to the mill’s local airport. Team members Petri Laurila and Hannu Uusi-Kyyny, two among twelve on this flight, especially appreciated the direct flight during this challenging and uncertain time for travel.”
Lambie cites the “remarkable” teamwork once everyone had convened at the mill. “In the atmosphere of COVID-19, we all settled down into start-up mode as if everything was normal; but remember that ‘normal’ included vigilance related to COVID-19,” he says. Frequent follow-ups and daily or weekly updates on the local pandemic situation helped the team feel safe.
“PM4 started up in early October despite all the challenges. As each new issue came up, as they always do during start-up, our team worked to resolve them as quickly and effectively as possible,” says Lambie. “This customer has always been a great partner, but this experience raised them even more. They have a great way of leading, doing the right thing when faced with challenges. One result from this project is an ongoing improvement in safety, based on new practices implemented during COVID-19.”
Many “Valmeteers” contributed to the success of this project and it would not have been possible without their dedication, persistence, and perseverance, Lambie says. “Our North America operations stepped up and manned the customer site when global resources were not able to travel. Our global resources later joined forces when they were able and the combined effort was invaluable. We had support from so many others that enabled our team to succeed. The amount of effort that everyone put into this project was tremendous.”
FBB CUSTOMER FINDS NEW PATH TO THE FINISH LINE
Start-up Sept. 16
Project Manager: Mike Fiore
Project Manager Mike Fiore led the Valmet team for the startup of this client’s new PM7 Curtain Coater Layer Station for folding box board at its Louisiana mill. This included an OptiLayer with supply system, web cooler, and a rebuild of air dryer nozzles. Sellable board has been produced ever since startup. Continuous improvement is yielding incrementally higher quality and productivity gains. Sounds normal, right?
Working from his new dining room office, Fiore remarks, “Years of start-up methodology and practices was turned upside down because of COVID-19. The list of what we couldn’t do kept growing: Government bans; strict mill visits protocols, including ‘no visits’; international flights cancelled; above all, start-up dates changed multiple times. Along with our customer, we were stuck. But then everything changed, little by little, for the better.”
How did things change? “The starting point for progress began with realistic discussions, followed by creative thinking with our customer and our own team,” says Fiore. “How could we succeed with fewer people on-site? Could experts contribute key insights remotely? Could we communicate better all along the board machine? The Valmet/mill leadership team found a new way to the finish line.”
Fiore says one key ingredient was essential: trust. “Our partnership with this customer allowed for small innovations and flexibility that made a huge difference. When you are faced with an unpredictable storm that changes from flurries to blizzard conditions—and happens to be invisible—nothing remains the same. You adjust and find a new tempo.
“As it turned out, some global experts were allowed to fly in,” he says. “We collaborated with our customers and government agencies to establish a comprehensive process for travel waivers. They arrived on a charter flight from Helsinki to Atlanta and another private jet to Louisiana. Other team members found flights or drove. ‘Suite’ hotels were the norm with meals brought in. Everyone quarantined and followed rigid restrictions for PPE use and social distancing,” he explains.
“The mill took many actions to protect their own people and us, which gave us all a higher comfort level. But let’s not forget the challenges of an advanced technology curtain coater system. Under normal circumstances, getting the chemistry right for formulation, monitoring, and tweaking coating color and thickness demand extreme attention.
“It helped that this customer made people available from another mill in the region that already had our curtain coater. The clincher was singular focus from all of us as one team. When the coater came up on-line, and continued to perform as expected, everyone breathed easier. We all knew this was a moment to remember.”
Since startup, all continues to go well, says Fiore. “Shortly after, this same customer sent us a purchase order for another mill. What more can you say about our relationship?”
Kevin Lynn-Lato is director, delivery operations, NA for Valmet. Learn more at valmet.com.