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Digitalizing the paper testing lab

New developments in laboratory paper testing methods enables more relevant data delivered faster

 

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First published in the December 2021 issue of Paperadvance.com

Introduction

With today’s ecommerce-driven society, paper and packaging quality is now a metric perceived far more important than ever before. But how do we improve quality and take the traditional laboratories into the digital realm without increasing workload and over stretching capabilities?

The answer to this lies in new testing processes that not only deliver more relevant, digitally enabled data but do so without requiring so much manual intervention.

Ghazal Amar, Global Product Manager

Ghazal Amar, Global Product Manager at Pulp and Paper, ABB, discusses the needs and solutions.

The pulp and paper industry is facing multiple challenges, with demands to boost quality, increase efficiency, improve sustainability and modernize, in general.

This is especially true for the packaging segment, which has seen an explosion in demand over the past 18 months with the pandemic-driven upturn in ecommerce and home deliveries. This has put pressure on in-house testing departments to assess the strength of packaging paper grades rapidly and accurately. Put simply, weak corrugated board does not make good boxes, and can result in goods being damaged in transit.

Quality is now more critical than ever, but tedious, overly protracted testing routines not only add time and cost; their less accurate clipboard-based approach to data gathering is not necessarily in tune with modern Industry 4.0-driven operations.

To improve quality, we need to accurately measure the quality of paper, but we need to do so by measuring the ‘right’ properties – those that give us more relevant information. To be truly effective, we need to measure in a simpler, faster, and more automated way to save time, cost and energy.  The solution to these challenges is twofold – adopting new testing methods and embracing more automation and digitalization.

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New testing methods

New methods of paper testing improve on traditional methods by providing information that is more accurate and relevant for paper mills to optimize their processes and produce a superior-quality product at a lower cost.

For packaging grades, an example of this is the S-Test method, performed using ABB’s L&W S-Tester, which predicts crush elasticity in medium fluting. This gives more relevant information about the strength of corrugated board compared to the maximum strength measured by traditional methods, such as Concora Medium Test (CMT), as it measures the point when the board starts to lose its elasticity and begins to fail.

The S-Test method is less time-consuming and requires fewer manual operations than the CMT method. It also gives new insights on the actual strength needs and means of achieving this, allowing paper mills to reduce their surface starch levels in many cases. Without such insight, starch often needs to be increased above functional levels just to reach the desired CMT max levels. For that alone, the starch savings can be quite high depending on the paper construction applied.

Another example is the Short-span Compression Test (SCT) method, which gives a more accurate measurement as the short span of compression does not cause buckling in material, and therefore the failure is purely compressive. Traditional methods, such as Ring Crush Test (RCT), underestimate the strength of low grammage material because of buckling and require several manual operations, which introduce further inaccuracies.

The short span of compression prevents buckling in the test piece, so the failure is purely compressive.
New methods of paper testing improve on traditional methods by providing information that is more accurate and relevant for paper mills

The Optitopo method, a similar example for printing grades, uses an optical method for analyzing the topography of paper and board surface to give a more accurate assessment of printability. The traditional air leak methods to measure surface roughness do not reveal small-scale surface variations, nor provide the right resolution to predict printing problems.

Lab automation for easier, faster ways to collect, analyze and exploit quality data

Introducing new testing regimes - let alone automating them to extract real-time data – may seem daunting to some, but with increased levels of automation, the benefits of more accurate, useful quality data can be fully exploited. Collecting this data means that those in control can get the right information in the right format at the right time to make the right decisions.

The new methods remove tedious and elaborate sample-preparation steps required by traditional methods and therefore these tests can be used in an automated paper and board testing system. This also reduces manual interventions which can introduce inaccuracies and operator-dependant results.

Automation needs are unique for every paper mill, with some mills more advanced in their journey opting for systems such as ABB’s L&W Autoline, and other mills opting for smaller scale solutions as their first step towards streamlining, modernizing and digitalizing their testing procedures.

Digital information in a fraction of the time

One example of a smaller scale solution is ABB’s L&W Lab Management System (LMS), a web-based lab-data management system, which is purpose built for lab employees to make their job easier. 



LMS removes multiple potentially error-prone manual procedures and automatically captures sample measurements from lab equipment, before delivering these results into customizable dashboards, providing users with data storage, management, analysis and reporting.

The benefit of such systems is that they take into account the nuances of pulp and paper lab technicians and provide a foundation for quality management without an elaborate and expensive quality data-management system. A step change to better lab practices and happier lab technicians!

Armed with this digital laboratory, data is available quicker than ever before, allowing operations managers to make far more pertinent, real-time lineside decisions. This ultimately saves time, cost, and effort, while maintaining the quality levels and traceability demanded by today’s ecommerce driven society.

Embracing the laboratory of the future

To improve time efficiency, work practices, and ultimately quality, we need to accurately measure the ‘right’ properties that give us more relevant information to improve quality. And we need to do so in a simpler, faster and more automated way to save time, cost and energy.

The laboratory of the future has solid foundations in embracing change.

ABB’s goal is to continue the pioneering heritage of Lorentzen & Wettre, supporting the industry by co-developing and embracing new testing methods that improve upon traditional methods, and adopting automation and digitalization in new ways.

Evolution really is the key to remaining competitive in what is becoming a very quality-driven industry.

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