Digital Transformation Can Help Balance Sustainability, Profitability

digital transformation

Today’s pulp and paper manufacturers face growing pressure to improve sustainability, lower energy consumption, and reduce their overall environmental footprint. At the same time, decision-makers are dealing with heightened competition, price constraints, and consumer demand for recycled materials. The margin for error is razor thin.

This mix of industry pressures has accelerated the adoption of digital transformation efforts. Many paper manufacturers are seeking digital solutions designed to spur efficiency, optimize production, and drive operational excellence. In fact, ABI Research forecasts that paper and pulp manufacturers will spend more than US$3.5 billion on digital technologies by 2030.

For digital initiatives to succeed long term, organizations must focus on continuous improvement, innovation, and scaling projects beyond a single production line. Investments alone are not enough. Paper manufacturers that approach digital initiatives as an ongoing pillar that upholds broader plans for operational excellence will see continued success.


From pulping wood and bleaching fibers to forming final products, papermaking is a resource-intensive process. Operations require raw materials (such as trees, plants, and recycled paper), chemical additives, agents and coatings, and massive amounts of water throughout the production process. That’s in addition to the energy needed to power machines and equipment.

In recent years, concerns about water consumption, deforestation, and other environmental impacts have prompted paper manufacturers to reevaluate their sustainability practices. As a result, more companies are looking to boost water conservation and wastewater treatment, along with improving solid waste disposal, mitigating spills and leaks, and conserving energy throughout the manufacturing process.

The rise of sustainability initiatives has created new opportunities for paper manufacturers, such as companies capitalizing on the growing market for lightweight packaging or switching to the use of recycled paper as raw material, both of which use less fiber in production. In these cases, manufacturers not only achieve more sustainable practices, but also support their bottom line.

However, sustainability best practices also present challenges. Recycled paper products, for example, are more cumbersome for manufacturers since certain paper products contain coatings that aren’t recyclable. Likewise, the cost and energy necessary to process recycled fiber currently exceeds that of processing wood.

The development of environmentally friendly manufacturing processes leaves little room for product losses, unplanned equipment downtime, or other manufacturing bottlenecks that lead to inefficiencies, underuse of resources, and excessive waste. As pulp and paper manufacturers work to balance sustainability challenges and opportunities, a dedicated digital strategy tips the scale in their favor.


Advanced data analytics, IoT sensors, and AI-powered software drive smart manufacturing processes capable of delivering new efficiencies and optimizing product outputs.

For example, some manufacturers have turned to high yield pulping and/or alternative pulping methods that use less water and chemicals and are powered by data analytics, IoT, and AI. Automated tools control and monitor the pulping process, while data analytics solutions use sensor data to find trends and improve quality control. These IoT solutions connect disparate sensors located across facilities to generate real-time data on key factors like temperature, humidity, and other elements that impact product quality and sustainability measures.

It’s no surprise manufacturers with successful digital initiatives increase throughput, generate larger gains, and save on production materials, chemicals, and energy. Together, these efficiencies represent a US$4-6 billion business opportunity, according to McKinsey research.

Digital evolutions allow pulp and paper manufacturers to support the world’s rising sustainability demands, but they don’t happen on their own. Here are three ways to begin implementing an effective and efficient digital strategy:

1. Start small and build on success. It’s most effective to start small with digital initiatives. Address a specific problem, apply a focused solution, and identify what worked well and what could improve as the organization looks to deploy technologies across other processes and production lines.

For example, risk modeling software can quantify the true cost of any design improvement or disruptions to production processes. While this technology will ultimately provide benefits across many facilities, it’s best to first apply software investments to a single and focused production arena, refine algorithms, and adjust strategy before deploying best practices organization-wide.

2. Prioritize high-value initiatives. Digital initiatives don’t just drive sustainability improvements, they also contribute to the economic factors that ensure more sustainable practices. Organizations that successfully deploy digital technologies often quickly start to see a return on their investments.

Predictive and prescriptive maintenance solutions, for example, proactively monitor production equipment and manage operational health, providing organizations with proactive insights into equipment usage, alerts of impending breakdowns, and strategies to prevent failures before they occur. Along with more efficient energy use, predictive and prescriptive maintenance reduces costly equipment downtime and disruptions to production. Intentional digitalization in high-value areas can yield high ROI quickly, as well as future benefits once manufacturers begin to scale.

3. Strive for operational excellence. Countless case studies, examples, and proof points underscore the success of industrial digitalization—and there’s no shortage of opportunities for manufacturers to capitalize on this. Many organizations recognize the value of digital projects and have even applied solutions in a few areas, but they struggle to scale investments organization-wide.

To get the full value and efficiency of digitalization, focus on gaining a foothold with one project, building upon success, and scaling technology across facilities to achieve broad operational excellence. Some organizations may need to reduce processing variability and off-spec productions, while others could benefit from solutions that prevent production disruptions and failures. Operational excellence looks different for every organization. It’s crucial to have an overarching vision for digital transformation efforts that extends across every part of the paper manufacturing lifecycle and the organization’s unique operations, start to finish.

Without optimizing the manufacturing lifecycle, sustainability and profitability could clash rather than complement each other. Digitalization—and the efficiencies and value that it fosters—turn that equation around in the world of paper and pulp manufacturing.

No single software or technology solution will solve all of an organization’s problems overnight. However, digital initiatives that are successfully scaled and function as part of a larger strategy for operational excellence help businesses meet industry and sustainability demands.

Joni Lipkowitz is senior manager of solution consulting for Aspen Technology, Inc., a leading industrial software partner for industries including pulp and paper. AspenTech solutions address complex environments where it is critical to optimize the asset design, operation, and maintenance lifecycle. Visit to learn more.