Why MES is a critical stepping stone in your digital transformation journey

An effective Manufacturing Execution System (MES) is a key step on a pulp and paper manufacturer’s digital journey; optimizing production efficiency, enabling visualization of the entire value chain and helping reduce energy use as part of an integrated approach to data management.

In today’s competitive, globalized marketplace, pulp and paper operators are facing the conflicting challenges of optimizing production processes to improve efficiency and quality control to gain an advantage, while at the same time reducing raw material use, energy consumption and waste.

In addition, global disasters such as Covid-19 and the Ukraine war are impacting economies, energy costs and supplies - altering how industry views digital transformation. It has also underscored the need for leaders to accelerate the adoption of agile ways of working, as well as future-proof business against more volatility. As digitalization progresses, it brings a free flow of data from both information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) applications across the value chain, making interoperability a priority.

Against this backdrop, focusing on the entire pulp and paper operation - from mill floor to enterprise level planning - is the best approach to convert digital data into world-class business results.  

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Article by ABB MES Product Manager Timo Nivalainen, originally published in PITA's fall '22 edition

Digital and automation technologies, such as manufacturing execution systems (MES), offer a critical competitive advantage by providing unprecedented, real-time visualization and control of the entire production chain, from raw materials to finished product. 

MES in pulp and paper operations

An MES is, put simply, a system that connects and automates processes, providing visibility across the value chain from shop floor to enterprise. This enables better oversight for planning and scheduling to continuously improve efficiency and reduce waste.

In the context of pulp and paper, MES can be specifically designed to help producers achieve operational excellence and maximum performance across multiple lines, optimizing storage, energy and raw material usage, and ensuring the delivery of products of the right quality at the right time.

This type of made-to-order MES differs from a more ‘agnostic’ system in that it can be customized to solve production challenges specific to pulp and paper mills, driving the best operational results.

The latest modular solutions cover all the core MES functionalities across the pulp and paper value chain, from order handling, production, warehousing and shipping to customer service management, as well as the acquisition and storage of resulting data and reporting. The modules work seamlessly together and can be enhanced with additional digital applications to improve operational efficiency.

MES is a long-term investment that supports different grades, production types and easy scaling of a company’s manufacturing footprint from numerous production lines to multiple mills. In this way, it can be used to future-proof manufacturing operations.

An MES is a system that connects and automates processes, providing visibility across the value chain from shop floor to enterprise.

A layered approach to data: the lifeblood of modern pulp and paper manufacturing

A report published by McKinsey in 2019 estimates that digital technologies could offer pulp and paper producers a 15 percent reduction in total cost and a five percent improvement in overall equipment effectiveness. A further report by McKinsey in 2021 reinforces that those digital technologies enable new levels of productivity in pulp and paper operations by leveraging large quantities of data to deliver better insights and outcomes. Successful digital innovators are seeing throughput gains of 5 to 10 percent, yield gains of up to five percentage points, and significant savings on materials, chemicals, and energy. For the industry, this represents a $4 to $6 billion opportunity, a realistic achievement here and now given there are already over 25 unique use cases generating value across the full pulp and paper value chain.

However, data is nothing without context. IBM Research estimates that up to 88% of IIoT data goes unused, while the Economist suggests that 99 percent of the value of manufacturing data is lost, with only 3 percent tagged and analyzed. Other hurdles include inaccessible legacy systems; a lack of real-time data; not labelling data logically; and the failure to effectively communicate data-derived conclusions.

An MES retrieves valuable process data seamlessly from fragmented control systems, interfaced with other data sources, ready to communicate with the Cloud and shop floor in real time.

Using the industrial internet of things (IIoT), the MES is fed with data on the real-time status or quality and processes, which can be used to help the operator identify inefficiencies and make informed, data-driven decisions that optimize performance and add value.

Bringing structure and standardization to data that is underutilized is therefore a vital step towards creating an integrated digital infrastructure that allows asset and operational data to be accessed, visualized, and analyzed for better performance.

ABB does this by using a layered approach, which starts with defining a strategy and the required data, mapping current network architecture, its bottlenecks, possible limitations and cyber security needs, and then determining and configuring data sources and interfaces.

The second layer examines physical distance and determines how best to collect data using Edge computing tools before mapping local applications within automation systems for later use. Finally, the third layer determines which data from the mill or facility, and which local applications and data, should be used and which of those applications should be transferred to the cloud.

Retrieving and harmonizing historical data from control systems and other sources in this way, using an integrated data management approach simultaneously with their MES, offers pulp and paper mill owners multiple benefits in terms of costs and efficiency. High-volume production data is organized hierarchically based on standardized models and structures, and data streaming between layers, to and from the cloud, is controlled and secured, and available in real-time at an optimized cost.

Flexibility and ease-of-use

All too often digital innovations are not designed with the everyday user in mind, which can limit their effectiveness and uptake, as well as result in additional training and application costs. For this reason, MES user interfaces and navigation should be co-created with pulp and paper operators, offering intuitive displays - the majority web-based - for better mill-to-shop floor visibility.

Let’s take the example of Ittihad Paper Mill (IPM) in Abu Dhabi, UAE, which annually produces 320,000 tons of uncoated, wood-free paper. IPM was the first pulp and paper site in the area, with many employees new to the operations and having little experience of the systems, including the MES. ABB provided training on how to use the MES’s algorithms and functionality and soon the mill team was confident and able to optimize production through the paper machine and beyond, right through to the fleet of sheeters.

The MES helps to plan production over the winders and sheeters, taking the full width of the paper web into use, helping to minimize waste at every stage of production, in turn saving money for the site.

With easily configurable dashboards for different grades, MES users can generally make changes on the fly directly from the management environment. For instance, paper mills may find value in being able to email everyday delivery notes, packing lists, invoices and more from the system itself.

In fact, MES can be used for all order entry and invoicing functions for end-customer products to streamline the flow, performing multiple checks to ensure the orders can be delivered in time, and providing the status of ordered, planned, produced, delivered and invoiced orders. This frees up sales or mill personnel to perform other important tasks since they only need to enter the minimum information (pricing and production reservations are handled by the system).

Production planning and trim optimization

An MES enables the real-time planning and optimization of production blocks, runs and orders, covering all the production steps, including the paper machine, winder, rewinder and sheeters. Flexibility is key; production schedules can be reoptimized after change orders or process disruptions and the MES can be easily configured to cover restrictions set by orders – e.g., the maximum number of rolls per set or edge roll restrictions – helping keep production costs to a minimum while ensuring on-time delivery. 

An MES can add value by optimizing an everyday function. For example, ABB’s MES for pulp and paper incorporates a trimming tool that prioritizes customer-specific quality requirements to maximize the value of the produced paper and the yield. 

It does this by using the jumbo reel cut plan to apply quality data to individual roll positions before it is cut at the winder, comparing roll quality to set standards, and detecting if any roll position does not meet requirements. Roll positions are then swapped to maximize yield and meet quality standards. The resulting optimized trim pattern is sent to the winder and can be applied automatically if the winder cutting is fully automated. At a fine paper mill producing 480,000 tons per year, deploying the ABB MES resulted in a reduction in trim losses of 2.9–4.8 MUSD per year.

MES: a key step towards autonomous operations

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned the need to use digitalization to adopt agile ways of working and value chain transformation, including the importance of free data flows and interoperability.

Taking this a step further, I would argue that installing an MES can help papermakers transition to fully autonomous operations. In this scenario, the hundreds of different applications, processes and work silos that are typically present in a pulp and paper enterprise are integrated into a single digital ecosystem, where a single modular software platform integrates all IT and OT data.


An MES can add value by optimizing an everyday function. For example, ABB’s MES for pulp and paper incorporates a trimming tool that prioritizes customer-specific quality requirements to maximize the value of the produced paper and the yield.

This holistic digital platform uses IIoT applications to monitor and optimize all facets of the manufacturing process in real time, from the integration of renewable energy from the smart grid to external partner solutions for end-to-end flexibility and speed.

What does this look like in a real-life industrial setting, and what are the tangible benefits in terms of business value? In Abu Dhabi, ABB’s MES is helping IPM eliminate human error from production and shipment processes, enabling the company to achieve a high level of delivery accuracy with only two planners. IPM estimates that to achieve the same accuracy outside the system they would need seven staff.

ABB’s MES connects to the paper machine’s automation, quality control and web inspection systems to provide online moisture, grammage and caliper profiles in the form of color maps. Samples of each jumbo reel are then sent to ABB’s automated paper testing solution, L&W Autoline – which is also directly connected to the MES – where additional quality measurements are performed and recorded as quality certification records for each order are produced. In addition, the MES solution enables end-to-end product traceability from the headbox through to final customer delivery.

This also offers seamless integration of manufacturing and business information with enterprise resource planning systems, enabling a single point interface, shortening implementation times and helping maximize the customer’s existing investments, while also saving on staff costs.

Limiting energy use and waste

In the pulp and paper industry, energy consumption constitutes up to 15% of total operating costs, so investing in energy efficiency and waste reduction solutions can make a significant difference to a company’s bottom line, as well as limit water and associated chemical use to improve energy and water security.

Applications can be integrated with an MES to manage energy consumption by leveraging real-time data from process monitoring, automation and production planning systems – as well as energy providers – to help manage and optimize mill operations. For instance, many modern MES feature applications compare actual consumption against targets and identify areas for improvement.

Energy load forecasting tools help operators plan supply or get the best price for energy. Energy monitoring and reporting calculates efficiencies and helps to visually analyze the
use of both energy and utilities, while energy demand and supply tools determine the optimum use of supply resources to meet the consumption schedules with user applied objectives.

Digital energy management systems can be used for single mill energy reporting or as a company-wide system serving hundreds of users that proactively manage energy planning and procurement. Let’s take the example of a European Cartonboard mill that invested in ABB’s MES. By optimizing refined mechanical pulp operation according to the electricity spot price and coming up with an accurate power consumption forecast for the electricity purchasing, the mill saved 14.5 percent in electricity costs. 


Using MES to future-proof mill operations

MES can be used to make pulp and paper manufacturing operations robust enough to weather fluctuations in the market, and the economic impacts of unexpected global events.

Modular and flexible MES applications are designed specifically for the requirements of the pulp and paper process, and in collaboration with the companies themselves, allowing them to be efficiently adapted to changing production environments, business rules and industry standards.

ABB's MES for pulp and paper covers the full order-to-cash process

Pulp and paper companies that develop meaningful partnerships with an experienced and trusted technology provider can look forward to an ongoing return on investment in software development to future-proof their investment and operations. Easy configurability, updates and continuous services ensure that results and utilization are preserved, and total cost of ownership is reduced.

In this way, MES solutions equate not only to efficiency, cost and energy savings for papermakers in the here and now; they also make them more resilient in the future, paving the way for success.

No matter how your operations change, a modern MES has the flexibility to support different grades, production types and the scaling of a company’s manufacturing footprint from numerous production lines to multiple mills. 

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