Digital field service in the pulp and paper industry

In the rapidly evolving realm of field service for the pulp and paper industry, digital technology can be the ultimate enabler, but how can we ensure it integrates with deep industry knowledge to generate value?

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Digitalization can be daunting, riven with misunderstandings and uncertainties. This is especially true when putting buzzwords like cloud and edge analytics, into practice. These tools offer many advantages for the pulp and paper industry, but for some, rapid transformation has generated confusion.

For example, there is a misconception within process industries that with enough sensors, instrumentation and analytics, problems can solve themselves. This is emphasized in pulp and paper where customers are investing significantly in digital infrastructures, yet often find that the technology just tells them things that are self-evident. You don’t need another tool or dashboard to alert you to a sheet break when you have alarms in place for such issues.

At ABB, we firmly believe that there will always be a crucial role for process expertise that can help maximize value of digital technologies. Organizations still need the right person, in the right place at the right time to get ahead of problems, enabling customers to meet value, productivity and quality targets.

Kevin Starr, Service& Digital strategy, ABB Process Industries
Kevin Starr explains how manufacturers can integrate digital solutions to current best practices and human resources

The missing piece of digitalization

What manufacturers really need are systems that help predict issues and prevent them from becoming problems, but sophisticated modelling can take months, even years, to tune accurately for complex processes like pulp and paper. It can be incredibly disheartening and there’s a widespread sense of trepidation around which digital solutions will offer longevity and ongoing support when tweaks are inevitably needed.

This can leave manufacturers feeling like a key puzzle piece is missing; the sense that digital solutions created without a deep understanding of the specific industry challenges they are designed to solve are unlikely to work effectively. As a strong advocate of digitalization, it is ABB’s mission to help manufacturers understand the missing link is understanding how to integrate digital solutions to current best practices and human resources.


Smart technology needs process expertise

A U.S. paper mill, whose goal is to increase safety for field service, has asked us to help them migrate away from a traditional preventive maintenance approach involving field engineers completing physical rounds and being routinely near electrical or hazardous areas.

This is a perfect demonstration of how digital can be a link to best practices and expertise. Instead of the engineers walking around to record data manually (subject to distractions that may lead to input error), and being in high-risk situations, they can use their knowledge, experience and peer network to interpret accurate, digitally-acquired data collected from smart sensors to take more informed action when on the mill floor.

Comparatively, without the information acquired from the sensors, the mill loses on productivity as unnecessary preventive maintenance tasks may be performed or are completed out of order of what’s critical. And, on the flipside, if a mill only had smart technology in place without process expertise, whomever is asked to service the assets will be inundated with thousands of data points, not knowing where action is truly needed. Transitioning to digitalization means embracing a digital toolkit for field service work to ensure the right service is performed at the right time with the right information.

Regaining accumulated experience through digitalization

Another concern among some manufacturers is the risk of losing ‘tribal knowledge’ as more people leave or retire. A digital infrastructure can actually help overcome this by performing retrospective analyses of problems that arise, identifying trends and describing corrective action, effectively connecting information between generations of employees. The new employees will then have a knowledge platform they can more readily start with, further improving information sharing and process expertise growth.

With data extraction from machines creating an accumulated experience, it can also be used to start predicting failures. Our dream is that we can use this combined knowledge of machine learning and process expertise to eventually prevent physical failures in the mill completely, always catching problems in time or at the very least, mapping failures to scheduled downtime rather than waiting for that dreaded midnight call. This would allow our customers to focus on producing the best quality paper, rather than troubleshooting asset or process issues.

Optimizing the human factor

ABB has been leveraging data and digital tools within pulp and paper and other process industries for decades and knows its value. The trouble is when digital is presented as a cure-all.  It’s very clear that technology without process expertise will only get manufacturers so far. In fact, digital is an excellent tool that allows us to further leverage human potential. It’s critical to our role that we clarify this for our customers, so that it feels real to them, and can be backed with action.

There’s no doubt that digitalization will transform mills when it’s done right. The only way is through digital infrastructure and analytics that are aligned to process expertise so that actions can be pre-qualified to find the right person at the right time with the right solution.

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