More than a mad rush for toilet paper: Paper manufacturing in the wake of COVID-19
When the COVID-19 lockdowns began, there was one item that seemed to be top of mind for everyone: toilet paper. Worldwide, store shelves were barren as people panicked and stocked their bathrooms. However, there was never a real shortage. Rather, it was a logistics issue, says Mariana Sandin, industry principal for forest and paper products at OSIsoft, now part of AVEVA. At least in the United States, there was never a true lack of products. Rather, logistics companies, constrained by work-from-home measures, couldn’t stock stores to match a massive spike in demand. This was just one phenomenon to come out of the global pandemic, which paper manufacturing have had to adapt to for the last year. I sat down with Mariana to discuss the current state of the industry, how COVID-19 changed things, and what the future may hold.
What is the current state of the industry?
There’s good news and bad news, says Sandin. The good: we’re seeing two specific segments of the industry thriving and growing. First, building products. “Prices of lumber are two to three times what they were a year ago in North America and Europe,” with many jumping to renovate their homes. Second, packaging is booming, with online shopping at an all-time high. Lastly, as businesses start to open back up and people go back to restaurants, etc., the consumption of paper products is growing again.
The not-so-good: 2020 brought several announcements of US mills and lines ceasing operations, with no plans to reopen. This was largely due to a big downturn of copy and writing (printed books, magazines), which Sandin believes is here to stay.
How has COVID-19 changed things in paper manufacturing?
One major shift was the personal care segment, things like toilet paper, wipes, diapers, etc., having major operational shifts. With less demand for paper products you might encounter at a public place and more demand for in-home care products, the personal care sector had to adjust production capacity accordingly.
The industry was already grappling with adjusting to better suit market demands, and COVID-19 accelerated that process. Luckily, the industry had already begun investing in new technology prior to the pandemic that helped ease the transition. Companies already tapping into their operational data and merging it with external information sources had a much easier time adjusting to a change in operations.
How can technology help?
At a high level, technology “helps tremendously because you don’t require the same downtime you normally would to put in a new piece of equipment. You can be running at the same time, gaining knowledge, and making better decisions along the way,” says Sandin. This was especially crucial when historically on-site teams were forced to work remotely, with employees often geographically scattered. These teams couldn’t have worked together if they didn’t have a digital tool to access their operations data.
Technology was critical for more than internal collaboration within teams. It also allowed companies to collaborate with those outside of their organization seamlessly and securely. Many companies even saw improved productivity as supporting roles went digital. International Paper, for one, was busier than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic.
What are the priorities for paper manufacturers moving forward?
Efficiency is key. “We want to be efficient in the long term, not just to meet the next target.” Whereas companies used to focus on the short-term, they’re now working with much longer-term targets (2030-2050) when looking at company-wide initiatives and goals.
Sustainability continues to be a major priority as well. The focus used to be on zero emissions but has now shifted to the concept of climate neutrality in both the processes and products they put out to the market. Climate neutrality is about more than just meeting regulations – it’s about operating in a way that helps the environment. It’s about making the most of a circular economy, recycling and reusing fibers already being used.
What changes do you see being permanent?
Sandin believes that using digital technologies to glean actionable insights is here to stay. Beyond just using data historians, the industry is convinced of the value of newer technology like machine learning which will change the way they operate.
Autonomous operations will also outlast the pandemic. Running a plant with minimal input from human beings ultimately makes processes more efficient, with humans overseeing and supporting these processes remotely. Mills are often in remote locations, since they need to be near a forest and a water supply, so this allows workers to support the mill from anywhere.
Lastly, the face of the industry is changing – and it’s getting younger. As an older generation retires, younger staff are promoted into roles in just two to three years, whereas it may have taken their predecessors upwards of 20 to get those positions. The millennial generation is used to working with technology and with data differently, and they will continue to shape the future of the industry.
What do you think the industry will look like in another five years?
“I think it’s still going to be a packaging industry, but it’s also going to be much more related to the final customer.” Firms will need to build better models, use cutting edge technologies, and take strategic risks to maximize profits while creating high quality products that are environmentally neutral. Autonomous operations will play a major role in how these mills are run.
Mariana also foresees more strategic use of cloud technologies, especially as they pertain to data analytics and information sharing. As different companies and different industries collaborate more, being able to securely and quickly share and access data in the cloud will be paramount.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has had crippling effects on businesses worldwide, it has also forced many to become more resilient. In the case of the pulp, paper, and forestry industry, it has shown that mills can do more with less, and that technology can help. From creating better products to creating climate neutral operations, real-time operational intelligence and a solid data infrastructure are crucial to the future of the industry.