How to keep your pulp and paper mill’s quality control system up-to-date with talent and data

Quality Control Systems are built to withstand harsh mill environments but still require regular upkeep, such as the removal of dirt, dust and moisture build-up, to maintain optimal performance.

Pulp and paper mills that deploy the right combination of digitally enabled quality control systems (QCS), together with traditional physical equipment inspections, can reap the benefits of optimized production, enhanced quality control and reduced downtime, explains William Dannelly, Global Product Line Manager at ABB Pulp and Paper.

The unexpected events of the last few years, notably the pandemic, have had a profound impact on business practices, accelerating the transition to remote and home working. While industry has adjusted to this new normal, it has highlighted systemic vulnerabilities in global supply chains and underlined the need for industry leaders to reassess how they engage with the digital transition.

Add to that global political instability, and the impact of the war in Ukraine, and you have a perfect storm of challenges facing manufacturers across multiple sectors. This is compounded by the perennial need to optimize production, maintain quality, reduce costly downtime, while at the same time limiting waste, energy usage and environmental emissions.

Adversity does, however, bring with it opportunities to disrupt the existing order by eschewing entrenched, inefficient working processes and taking a simpler, smarter approach to digitalization; an example being the trend for remote project commissioning and servicing during the pandemic.

Adversity also demands that the foundations of any operation are as robust and resilient as possible.

This is particularly true for the pulp and paper industry. The pandemic was a challenging time for operators who had to keep mills running in difficult conditions and were focused on surviving rather than thriving. It’s not surprising that, during a time when people were running on empty and under intense pressure, certain disciplines became a lesser priority.

Now is the time to re-instill discipline and bring back some of the good habits that may have been lost during these difficult years. We need to collectively remind ourselves of the importance of the basic, daily hygiene that is so critical to mills: regular service, maintenance, continual optimization, troubleshooting, long-term planning and more.

Let’s take the discipline of regular, physical inspection and maintenance as an example; pulp and paper operators cannot afford, nor no longer have an excuse, to let service levels drop.  

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Article by William Dannelly, Global Product Line Manager at ABB Pulp and Paper, originally published in PaperFirst Magazine, Spring 2023 issue.

In this article I will discuss how we can restore best practices and deploy new tools and add-on digital extensions that have become available since the pandemic to ensure optimal performance and maximum availability. 

The limitations of Big Data

As someone who works for a technology leader such as ABB, I am, naturally, an advocate for leveraging data and its unique ability to provide greater visualization of an entire manufacturing production chain.

Much has been written about how the industrial internet of things, AI and Big Data are automating industrial processes, resulting in production and cost efficiencies, as well as freeing up workers from performing repetitive tasks in risky or inhospitable environments.

What we have seen during the past few years, however, is that Big Data has its limitations when it comes to driving real business value for large industrial manufacturers. Big Data is about collecting vast amounts of granular information on every facet of plant operations and centralizing it in a single repository where it can be collated, analyzed and then applied to optimize production and identify potential failures before they occur.

That’s fine, but pulp and paper operators are realizing that they don’t necessarily need large quantities of historical data, or even have large quantities of sufficient detail, as much as they need solutions that keep pace with the rapidly changing operating environment in their mill. This is why, at ABB, we focus on understanding how those processes work and tailor our data-driven solutions to mill-specific parameters to effectively apply those principles to areas that deliver real value: cost to produce, throughput, availability and quality.

Most importantly, there is a greater appreciation of how those insights can drive business value to the end product. That is perhaps the single biggest change that we at ABB have witnessed over the past five years. Digital can adapt to such requirements quickly and seamlessly and as such, we have responded by focusing our digital offering on each customer’s parameters to better understand their specific processes.


The importance of people power

You can have all the technology in the world, but it is only as effective as the talent that goes hand in hand. The workforce remains a critical step on the journey to autonomous operations. In my view not enough has been written about how the digital transition must be supported by the transformation of processes and people.

Pulp and paper is a great example. The sector is traditionally viewed as being risk-averse when it comes to adopting new technologies, but, encouragingly, during the pandemic we saw an increased interest from many mills to embrace new tools and processes such as remote commissioning and maintenance. Now, as we return to more traditional post-Covid ways of working, it’s crucial that operators continue to invest their time and expertise so as not to allow service levels to slip.

Let’s take the example of a Tesla car to illustrate the point. Tesla gathers a multitude of data about the car itself and how it is driven, but it is still a mechanical thing. You still have to put air in the tires and wash the windshield or the car will eventually, without upkeep, become undriveable.

During the pandemic you couldn't leave the house, so you weren't putting as many miles on your car, meaning that maybe you weren’t servicing it as often as before. This may not cost you anything in the short term, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do in terms of servicing and keeping expensive equipment at optimal performance.

Transfer that to a mill, which typically contains multiple heavy, complex machines at every stage of the production chain, from woodyard to shipment. During the lockdowns, companies understandably struggled to get as many staff as possible onto the shop floor to perform preventative maintenance rounds. Having the right people, with the right expertise, in place to perform these physical inspections must once again become a priority. Without this, operators will struggle to maximize uptime and identify and mitigate the effects of harsh mill conditions - such as dirt, dust, pulp and moisture build up - which can impact even the most reliable of equipment.

Mitigating the impact of mill conditions can be tackled by leveraging a combination of digital and physical service; data analysis can advise what is most critical and your service experts can handle it directly.

Mitigating the impact of mill conditions can be tackled by leveraging a combination of digital and physical service; data analysis can advise what is most critical and your service experts can handle it directly.

It may run, but will it win?

While the need for maintenance is there, regular rounds can still be a hurdle due to a lack of support or specific expertise. This is where the latest extensions to traditional systems can add real value. Using data in a smarter way allows mill operators to visualize the pulp and paper production chain from end to end and make informed decisions that optimize production and profitability. It also frees up personnel from performing repetitive manual tasks to focus instead on more valuable, mission-critical processes.

If you were able to measure electrical components of your quality control system, such as a sensor lamp or x-rate tube for example, you could identify an issue before it happens by monitoring variability and setting alerts. The same is true for mechanical issues. If sensing planes need to be cleaned, a standardized failure occurs. Mills can then continue maintenance more efficiently, and where its most crucial, while avoiding unplanned downtime and/or after-hours support.

Smart data management also helps offset skills gaps by providing maintenance and operations personnel with raw analytics and reporting in real time in the form of intuitive online dashboards, allowing them to visualize information that has been automatically curated and calculated.

I’m going to return to my automobile analogy here, this time with a Formula One car. The people in the pits are provided with detailed information on every aspect of the car’s performance, but that data needs to be gathered into a single environment and analyzed if it is going to be of any use.

Just as you wouldn’t race a F1 car one weekend, put it in a truck, drive to the next city and just race it again – “it may run, but will it win?” – digital solutions not only provide the crucial information that teams need to protect the system; they also enable ABB experts anywhere in the world to log on and help the on-site team at the mill see the bigger picture and diagnose the issue before it impacts production. In this way mills can continually optimize operations by monitoring mechanical, electrical and calibration signals, but success won’t be achieved if disciplined physical inspections are not put in place alongside.


Digitally enabled systems and solutions, installed and maintained in collaboration with a specialist technology provider, are successfully bridging the gap that has traditionally existed between information technology and operations technology. This is helping producers to reduce production and maintenance costs and maximize uptime and quality control. A saving of even one percent in terms of extra production, or 0.5 percent, say, in terms of fiber usage can equate to many millions of dollars saved in the context of large, asset-heavy manufacturing operations.

Digital solutions can also be enormously beneficial in helping manufacturers monitor and optimize resource consumption to reduce their carbon footprint, particularly in pulp and paper mills where energy consumption can be significant.

However, investment in human capital is also crucial to maintain service levels and preventative maintenance, as well as to ensure that our industry continues to attract the best talent. I believe that technology and talent is the unique partnership that will ensure the continued success of the pulp and paper sector. 


You can have all the technology in the world, but it is only as effective as the talent that goes hand in hand. The workforce remains a critical step on the journey to autonomous operations.

Investment in human capital is crucial to maintain service levels and preventative maintenance, as well as to ensure that our industry continues to attract the best talent.


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