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Week of 31 July 2017: People versus computer technology

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I was talking to an old friend who spent one of his college days' summers doing fetch-and-carry work in a paper mill. Although it had been many years ago, he was still in awe of that "big ol' paper machine" and the fact that it took "twelve or thirteen men" to run it.

No more, Tom, I said. I explained how process automation had swept through paper mills--and swept out the hands-on operation of paper machines and other equipment. If he went into a machine room today, he would probably see a couple of people sitting in an air-conditioned booth and looking at computer screens. Now and then, one of them might twiddle a knob a bit or move a slide control a fraction of an inch. Paper is made today by only a mere fraction of the people who once populated machine rooms.

The trend toward fewer employees in our pulp and paper mills started many years ago. It was originally driven by cost and quality. Employees cost money. When computers came along that could adjust various attributes in real time, as opposed to employees monitoring conditions, pulling levers and turning valves, the replacement was inevitable.

Then, employees started costing even more money. Accidents led to lawsuits, higher insurance premiums and absenteeism. Pensions, insurance and other government mandates have pushed the burden on top of employee salaries to nearly 40% in some cases, not counting the risk of employee generated lawsuits. Add to this notification rules about layoffs in the United States and the near impossibility of laying off employees in Europe and you can see why employers look at employees as something to avoid.


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So, the drive continues to eliminate employees. What's in the future? We have talked about it here before. Expect centralized control rooms where regionally located expert operators run several machines. At the machine site, there will be only junior level operators with limited responsibilities.

Look for clothing companies to expand their service with expert teams that come in to install new wires and felts. Since they will be experts, they will need fewer hours to do what you have been doing, because they do it every day. They also will not be on your payroll.

A large labor component persists in maintenance. The day is coming when regional, central maintenance shops, owned by your company or an outside firm, will receive large unit sections from your mill for refurbishment, much like rolls are rebuilt today. This will take more standardization than today, but it is coming.


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What is driving all of this? Two things. The first is the ever more complicated equipment which requires highly trained professionals to operate and maintain. The second is government imposed employee liabilities. From layoff notifications to mandates for time off to take care of newborns, to universal health insurance, the more government mandates, the fewer employees.

Now, don't get me wrong. All of these government protections for employees are good. But companies being what they are, they are going to work very diligently to reduce these costs-- costs that these days frequently only start with the salary. The hidden burden is becoming extraordinarily high.

Productivity improvements have steadily driven industry for decades to make more product with less people. That is how societies achieve a higher standard of living. However, we are moving into a new era now, one where the protection burden afforded employees drives companies to do everything they can to eliminate employees. That's the unintended consequences of a high protection requirement.

For safety this week, less people, on one hand, mean less potential for accidents. On the other hand, those still operating our facilities may have to learn new safety techniques as they interact with robots and other devices.

Be safe and we will talk next week.


Jim Thompson is back again...with a new book on a taboo subject: the personalities in the pulp & paper industry. Jim has written in the past on many subjects based on his four plus decades in the worldwide pulp and paper industry. This new book is packed full of information valuable to the senior member of the industry as well as the recent entrant. A must for every pulp and paper library.


Nip Impressions has been honored for Editorial Excellence by winning a 2016 Tabbie Award!


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