The road less travelled in papermaking: navigating known challenges when scaling operations

The pulp and paper industry represents a large and growing portion of the world’s manufacturing economy. As more businesses and consumers opt against single use plastics, demand for paper and sustainable packaging solutions is growing. This is driving an expected compound annual growth rate of 3.8% between 2024 and 2028 for the pulp and paper industry.

With increasing demand for paper products and new innovations on the horizon, such as bags, bottles and battery components made from paper, the industry needs to achieve consistent, high levels of productivity to capitalize on these abundant opportunities. However, paper mills are struggling with uptime, mainly due to the time-old challenge of outdated equipment and subsequent low standards of process control and measurement.

Digital transformation is part of the answer to existing production optimization and holds significant promise for reducing energy consumption, however, despite it being essential for the future, connectivity brings its own unique set of challenges. The convergence of operational technology (OT) with information technology (IT) has created new vulnerabilities in mill cyber security which, if not managed correctly, can cause even greater inefficiencies if a cyberattack is successful.

Many of ABB’s clients are struggling in the face of these conflicting challenges. They recognize the copious opportunities for growth but find the road to realizing them is plagued with hazards. As a result, mills find themselves at a crossroads. They must find a way to increase uptime and productivity, while doing so safely, securely, and sustainably. In this article, we investigate the approaches and technologies that can give the pulp and paper industry the boost it needs to reach its destination.


Article by Stefano Cinquina, Global Business Line Manager for Pulp and Paper, ABB Process Industries, first published in the Paper Technology International Journal, Summer Edition 2024 available  here

Unleashing productivity

Most pulp and paper mills are aware of the pressing need to modernize and invest in their operations, yet some sites have not upgraded key technologies in over 20 years. The culminating result is unexpected failures and hidden inefficiencies, costing time and money while losing out on key growth opportunities.  

It is critical to see and measure results in real time. If you can’t measure quality, the consumption of raw materials such as fiber, chemicals and energy is often not optimal for the paper products produced, which has a significant impact on overall productivity and profitability. Quality Control Systems (QCS), such as ABB QCS, enable mills to have greater control over their paper machines, including functions such as third-party dilution actuators in headbox and profilers, which can optimize production based on basis weight and moisture measurements. This level of control ensures production quality is higher with less downtime, empowering operators to implement faster production changes while maintaining a high-quality output.

Effective data management also has the potential to revolutionize productivity in paper mills. By analyzing historical data and identifying patterns and trends, mills can forecast when a component is likely to require maintenance or a replacement, allowing them to schedule interventions during planned downtimes, rather than responding reactively to faults and having to shut down at inconvenient times.

ABB Ability™ System 800xA® distributed control system (DCS) integrates operations across the mills to provide data and analysis to support maintenance engineering decisions. This helps pulp and paper manufacturers to optimize maintenance strategy procedures, while ABB Ability™ Asset Condition Monitoring observes all pulp and paper mill's assets in real time. This includes field devices, control systems, automation elements and other major assets.

One of ABB’s key clients in Asia demonstrates the value that digital technologies can deliver for increasing productivity. One of its major paper mills runs a complex, 13-paper machine operation which needed to maintain high production while being able to correctly predict service costs and constantly improve process performance. They turned to ABB’s remote monitoring and predictive analysis technologies. This helped the mill harness the tremendous amount of data needed to complete bump tests to address production, quality and cost issues — one step at a time — and reduce both the time spent doing so by 70% and the overall loop tuning effort by 75%. This contributed to increased production, lower chemical costs, accelerated grade changing, fewer sheet breaks, reduced unplanned downtime and machine direction ash variability.

ABB Ability™ System 800xA® distributed control system (DCS) 

Keeping security in check

The advent of new technologies to reduce downtime and foster greater productivity is changing the pulp and paper industry significantly. However, excitement regarding these innovations must be balanced with a constant eye on security.

These technologies place a greater emphasis on connectivity as real-time data and insights are often crucial to realizing productivity gains. If not managed correctly, the increased integration of operational assets onto corporate networks can expose industrial control systems, process control systems and operational technology to malware attacks, hacktivism and other security threats.

A cyber security breach on a mill can bring production to a halt with potentially widespread consequences, even from just a minor breach. One day of lost production or downtime could cost millions of dollars. There are also many potential sources of indirect loss in the immediate wake of a breach. In the long term, mills must contend with the costs to validate that their systems are back to normal, manage regulatory reporting and invest additional time into rebuilding trust with customers.

With the instances of cyberattacks on the rise – in 2023, over 72 percent of businesses worldwide were affected by ransomware attacks – mill operators can’t afford to be passive about cyber security.

So, how can mills rise to the challenge of growing demand without compromising the security of their operations?


The advent of new technologies to reduce downtime and foster greater productivity is changing the pulp and paper industry significantly. 

A dual faceted solution

Digital transformation should be built on a strong foundation of cyber security. All digitalization initiatives must actively pursue an appropriate combination of technology, people, and process – including integrating IT and OT. A defense-in-depth approach is a great way to achieve this, meaning addressing cyber security at multiple levels.

Working with mills worldwide, ABB has found it's never too late to begin implementing a cyber security strategy. Mills can, and should, upgrade and implement practices across existing platforms if they don’t already have an established cyber security architecture. New technologies now make it easier than ever to collect and analyze security data.

ABB recently supported DS Smith to build a bespoke cyber security system to ensure the highest level of security across existing technologies. The two organizations worked together to upgrade legacy systems and establish enhanced cyber security architecture.



Digital transformation should be built on a strong foundation of cyber security.

DS Smith case study: Combining safety with automation

DS Smith is a leading provider of sustainable fiber-based packaging worldwide, supported by recycling and papermaking operations. The company’s Kemsley Paper Mill in Kent, UK, has been in operation for 99 years and is today the second largest recycled paper mill in Europe with an annual production capacity of over 820,000 tons. 

 As it edges towards its centenary, the DS Smith Kemsley team faces a new generational challenge to create highly automated, increasingly connected and more secure operations. As a technology leader with decades of history and many industry firsts in pulp and paper, ABB is embedded in the mission. For the Kemsley mill, cyber security is an important part of its license to operate. The team wanted to maintain their security but recognized the importance digitalization plays now and in the future.

 For the last decade, an older version of System 800xA distributed control system (DCS) was used successfully, but it did not lend itself to effectively supporting the latest technology and hardware. The time had come for a full system upgrade with enhanced cyber security architecture to meet modern requirements. 

 Together with a QCS, drives and machine control across all three paper machines on the 1.1km² site, the DCS touches every area of the mill. At such a scale, the idea of a seamless upgrade may have seemed impossible to many. 

 The mill scheduled shutdown on all three paper machines, beginning with PM3 and PM4 simultaneously, followed by PM6 and their effluent and freshwater plant. The team recognized the importance of the project and timed it for minimal disruption to normal operations. Having three paper machines on one site isn’t common within the industry and added to the complexities and logistics of such a project – raising the stakes significantly. 

It became one of the largest system upgrades that ABB has supplied into the industry, taking over 6,000 hours in advance and 12 days on site. The team completed a full upgrade of the DCS, QCS and paper machine drives, with mill-wide integration. 

Mapping out a complex architecture to deliver cyber security at every level of operations, ABB had the expertise and power of both local and coordinated resources to deliver a close-to-seamless upgrade. 

System 800xA is a key control system for DS Smith and with enhanced integration and more secure options, visibility of operations mill-wide have improved significantly – aiding DS Smith on their digitalization journey and laying the ground for the future of their operations.  


DS Smith Kemsley mill, Kent, UK. 

The home stretch

ABB firmly believes that the future of the pulp and paper industry is sustainable. But, to succeed, mills need to keep moving forward with a phased approach that takes advantage of data. While the industry is increasingly embracing digitalization, knowing how best to utilize and secure it is key.

 It is important not to shy away from adopting new technologies just because of the elevated security risk. Thousands of companies around the world have embraced new productivity-boosting technologies and haven’t experienced devastating cyberattacks. This is because they secured against threats by considering and implementing security as part of the overall transformation plan.

 As exemplified by DS Smith's Kemsley Mill, digitalization presents a roadmap for a more secure, efficient, and sustainable future for the pulp and paper industry. By embracing these advancements and fostering collaborative partnerships with industry leaders like ABB, manufacturers can unlock the true potential of digital transformation and secure their competitive edge in the years to come.

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