Producing on-spec paper every time, it’s automatic!

Papermakers’ jobs are complicated but have to be precise every time. In the fast-paced world of paper production, achieving consistent quality and efficiency is a perpetual tightrope walk. There is constant demand to deliver a product that meets ever-evolving customer needs, all while minimizing waste, maximizing output speed, and adhering to strict industry standards. Meeting this complex combination of requirements can be very challenging for producers.

Crucial to any successful paper manufacturer is the production of ‘saleable quality’ paper.  In other words, this is a product that fully meets the customer’s quality criteria and specifications and can be sold at a fair price for a profit to the business. Get it wrong, and costs can quickly ramp up from wasted raw materials and other unnecessary costs. For decades, manual laboratory testing has been the industry workhorse for paper quality control. But in today's competitive landscape, limitations like slow testing speeds, limited data points, and human error are becoming increasingly costly obstacles.

This is where automated paper testing comes in, offering a significant upgrade to traditional processes. Automated paper testing is a powerful tool that offers large, medium, and even small paper mills valuable opportunities to improve quality, increase productivity, make faster decisions, and ultimately raise profit potential.

Article by Stefano Cinquina, Global Business Line Manager, Pulp and Paper, ABB Process Industries, first published in Pulp, Paper and Logistics, May / June Edition, available  here

Making the move to automation

Traditionally, quality control has relied on a method as old as the industry itself - manual testing. Technicians take a handful of samples from each paper reel and subject them to a battery of tests. While it offers a glimpse into quality, this traditional approach has a critical Achilles heel: a lack of sufficient data.

Testing just a few samples across a wide reel is like trying to judge a whole cake by tasting a single crumb. There's a high risk of missing crucial variations in quality. This can lead to undetected quality issues and tons of unusable paper rolling off the production line. To compound this, manual testing can be time-consuming. The lag time between testing and results, all while potentially off-spec paper continues to be produced, can be a drain. As producers grapple with rising energy bills and other associated costs, the stakes are too high now to operate with such high levels of inefficiency and uncertainty.  

A hidden danger with manual testing is the limited cross-machine direction (CD) profile data it produces. Manual testing often fails to capture crucial variations in properties across the entire width of the reel. This creates blind spots in quality control, leaving room for inconsistency. For some paper properties, the quality can vary by more the 10% across the width of the machine, and in some cases even up to 20%, compared to machine direction (MD).

Manually sifting through data for inconsistencies is like searching for a needle in a haystack; a time-consuming and error-prone process that can leave papermakers vulnerable to inconsistent quality down the production line. Thankfully, there's a better way. Automated testing systems offer a modern approach to quality control, one that eliminates these limitations and ushers in a new era of efficiency and precision.

A technician working with ABB's L&W Autoline system, which enables much higher data gathering and analysis.

Is now the right time for automated testing?

The global paper industry is undergoing a period of significant transformation. Production volumes are increasing, driven by larger, faster machines turning out ever-increasing amounts of paper. This creates a critical need for more frequent and rapid quality testing – a challenge that traditional manual methods simply can't meet.

At the same time, the industry faces labor shortages, rising costs and a fiercely competitive landscape. Advanced automated systems deliver not just speed and efficiency, but also valuable data that correlates test results with real-world performance. This translates to a significant cost advantage over traditional methods. While papermakers are locked in stiff competition, with customers demanding ever-higher quality standards, meeting these standards needs to be balanced with profitability. Automated testing provides an answer, ensuring consistent quality that keeps customers happy, while simultaneously streamlining production and minimizing waste to keep costs down.

The paper industry is embracing sophisticated data modelling to optimize production and predict paper quality. These models rely on vast amounts of testing data, far more than manual methods can provide. In essence, automated paper is essential for navigating this perfect storm of evolving demands and economic pressures.

The advantages of automation

Unlike manual testing's limited sample size, automated systems collect a significantly higher number of data points, allowing for 10 times more testing points per reel than manual testing comparatively. This creates a statistically robust picture of paper quality, allowing for real-time adjustments to the papermaking process. Automated testing provides the feedback needed to nip quality issues in the bud, ensuring consistent excellence.

Automated systems store all test data electronically, creating a treasure trove of information. Papermakers can now analyze trends, identify root causes of issues, and collaborate more effectively between quality control and operations teams. This knowledge empowers them to continuously optimize the papermaking process, streamlining production and minimizing waste.

In today's competitive market, both consistent quality and cost-effectiveness are crucial. Automated paper testing systems deliver on both fronts. By minimizing waste and ensuring high quality, papermakers gain a significant advantage. Automation isn't just a game-changer for paper quality control; it's a key ingredient for success in the modern paper industry. Perhaps the most compelling indication of this is the fact that no paper mill has ever reverted to manual methods after adopting automation. The benefits are simply too significant to ignore.

Automated testing systems are not just tools; they are a gateway to a more efficient, cost-effective, and quality-focused future for the papermaking industry. By embracing automation, papermakers can not only ensure consistent paper quality but also unlock a world of possibilities for further optimization and innovation.

Virtual measurements were also included in the scope of project delivery, adding strength and weight measurements for more accurate and frequent measurements. Additional complexity lay in integrating across the operational technology, implementing cyber secure architecture all the way from automation to control to IT.


ABB's L&W Autoline testing system.

User-friendly tech for seamless integration

Modern automated testing systems, like the L&W Autoline, are designed with user-friendliness in mind. An operator of any skill level could walk up to a system equipped with an intuitive touchscreen, as easy to navigate as a smartphone, and get to work. Built-in analytical tools take the guesswork out of interpreting data, presenting clear insights at a glance.

 In many mills we have seen that trust and confidence between the lab and production improves when an “impartial referee” reports the measurements. Operators no longer question sampling or testing methods, while lab technicians can rely on the system's consistent and trustworthy results. This trust fosters a more proactive and positive approach to quality management, eliminating the need for unnecessary discussions about retesting and instead allows operators to focus on corrective actions.

 Even the testing process itself makes life simple. After each reel change, a sample is collected by the system, eliminating the need for manual intervention. The entire cycle, from sample collection to analysis and data generation, can be completed in ten minutes. That's a ten-fold improvement over traditional methods, freeing up valuable time for operators to focus on more strategic tasks.

 Automated paper testing isn't just about better data; it's about empowering your workforce to achieve more.



Case in paper: transforming production with mill automation

A US paperboard mill was urged to adopt automated paper testing by its sister mills in Europe, which had been using the technology for several years. The benefits they achieved are a testament to the transformative power of this technology.

Within months of implementing the L&W Autoline system, production and quality teams were not only confident in the results, but also empowered to embark on a Six Sigma project, a method used by businesses to improve their business processes by reducing defects and increasing quality and efficiency. Their goal: reduce basis weight while maintaining tensile strength – a delicate balance.

During the project, thanks to the new high-resolution CD profiles they could get, the team saw that there was excessive variation in tensile tests in one specific position on the machine. The repeatability of automated paper testing enabled the mill personnel to focus on and resolve factors that were affecting that position.

Previously, manual testing's limited reach left them blind to crucial variations across the paper web. Automated testing provided a deeper understanding, thanks to more testing positions across the reel and consistent positioning.

Prior to automation, the mill was forced to over produce basis weight to ensure strength specifications were met. This resulted in wasted materials and higher costs.

The high speed of automated testing enabled multiple test strips per reel in just four minutes. This allowed for basis weight reduction, product recipe updates, and a dramatic decrease in rejects. Due to the testing repeatability, the mill achieved over $1 million in annual savings through adjustments based on data like tensile stiffness orientation. Other significant operational benefits included a 2-3.5% basis weight reduction, a large chemical cost reduction as strength additive usage lowered by 23.5%, and a staggering drop in paper rejections due to low tensile from 65 tons per month to zero.

This case study is a compelling example of how automated paper testing isn't just about data – it's about empowering teams, optimizing processes, and achieving significant cost savings while maintaining exceptional quality.


Automated paper testing is a powerful tool that offers all papermakers the means to improve quality, increase productivity, make faster decisions and improve the bottom line. 

The next chapter

As the paper industry continues to evolve, the need for robust and efficient quality control measures will only become more critical. Eventually, we will reach a point where quality is no longer a guessing game, unlocked by the potential of automated testing and quality control. The days of manual testing and its inherent limitations may  soon be behind us and in its place, a wealth of data that will allow mills to paint a detailed picture of their operations and product properties.

This continuous process optimization and feedback loop empowers operators to make adjustments on the fly, ensuring consistent excellence in every roll of paper produced. When paired with systems such as ABB’s Quality Control System, visibility of operations is enhanced further, providing access to even more data points to optimize operational costs and make high-quality, on-spec paper.

At a time when satisfying the balance between cost and customer satisfaction has never been higher, automation delivers the quality that customers crave while minimizing waste and streamlining production for maximum efficiency.

The paper industry is no stranger to innovation, and automated testing represents the next chapter in this ongoing story. By embracing this powerful technology, papermakers can not only ensure a brighter future for their businesses, but also guarantee a future filled with paper of exceptional quality – one meticulously crafted roll at a time.

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