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A new future for papermaking

Published 11/11/2013 by Paul Krochak

In the year 2000, I took my first summer research position in the field of pulp and paper. I had an interesting project within a large research group with a strong international presence. And there was no lack of financial support. In fact there was more money available then there were students to spend it on. Overall there was a sense that we were working in a thriving industry.

Over the years this situation changed dramatically. The cost of energy began increasing rapidly, competition was growing fierce in foreign markets, print – in particular newsprint – was no longer the high demand commodity it once was, and mills began closing at an alarming rate. I'm certain this story sounds familiar.

I recently began researching the history of the pulp and paper industry in an attempt to understand what has led to the success (and failure) of different paper- and pulp producing regions. Some striking patterns become obvious. Raw materials availability is without a doubt essential. Production efficiency has also been a necessity which typically is derived through innovation. Interesting too is the role of government support (or lack thereof) through legislation; legislation which includes trade tariffs, regionally specific innovation programs, sustainability, and a vision for long-term industrial growth. However at the present, success seems to be driven ultimately by demand, be it local or that created through exports. And unfortunately demand for many grades, namely printing and writing, is not what it once was.

Despite the challenges the pulp and paper industry is currently facing, society still demands renewable products to meet our daily needs. Renewable resources and recyclability are no longer ideals; they are requirements of the end users of products. Recent innovations in forest product engineering have given rise to new techniques for producing lightweight high strength paper products, 3D formable paper, functional paper, an array of applications for nano-cellulose, clean energy, green chemicals, green plastics, and other value added composite materials. These are believed to form the basis for the so-called 'bio-based economy' of the future. Government and non-governmental organizations are providing funding for innovation within these areas in almost every major producing region globally. The future maybe looks bright after all?

However, the big challenge for our industry will be surviving the XX year gap until the bio-economy becomes a reality, that is, profitable. This still may be 5, 10, or even more years away. Yet the industry has one critical advantage in achieving this future, namely its infrastructure, assets, investments, and experience in converting forests into value in a sustainable way. Paper products are still in demand today – and will continue to be in demand for the foreseeable future, and this will form the basis for developing the bio-economy. In planning for the future, it is critical to focus on the present, to focus on the things that will get us there. This includes efficient production of paper, packaging, and household product grades. This includes being flexible enough to be able to increase production of the products that are in demand today, and reduce production of those that are not. Better control of the unit processes involved in production is more important than ever and this will only come through improved understanding, measurement, and control strategies over the entire production line. And above all, it is essential that we support short and long term innovation programs which will help transform this industry back to its previous thriving state. 

Share your view and help us map the future of the paper industry in our expert survey  by clicking the link to the right! The survey is a part of our next Innventia Global Outlook Report: "Papermaking towards the future"

Paul Krochak
Paul Krochak works in the group Process Solutions at Innventia.

Paul Krochak
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