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Week of 24 May 10: Large Mills/Small Mills/Consolidated Control Mills

About 15 - 20 years ago, the idea of "mini-mills" was all the rage in the paper industry. The concept was to build a simple, one machine mill, using recycled fiber as the feedstock and a package boiler burning natural gas as the energy source. Several were built, some for linerboard and medium production, others for tissue.

On the other side of the equation are large mills, usually pulp manufacturing integrated, with many paper machines. In between are mills like Rock-Tenn's mill in Solvay, New York, which essentially has three mini-mills on one site.

All of this discussion is old enough now that I have recently run into several younger members of our industry asking, "Why doesn't the paper industry build mini-mills like the steel industry does?" The response, of course, is that we have.

The large, multi-machine mills were built when most goods and services were delivered and product was removed from mills by rail. Sitting here today, it does not seem possible, but the US Interstate Highway System was completed only thirty years ago (and most other countries were behind the US in this endeavor, although most have or are rapidly catching up). Forty years ago, there were massive gaps in the Interstate System. So the large mills were built amongst the trees and their finished products shipped by rail.

There has not been a large, multimachine mill built in decades in North America. They are still being built in China, but that is because the infrastructure there more nearly resembles the US infrastructure of the late 1940's, early 1950's (although China is rapidly improving its transportation system).

Machines that fit the mini-mill description are still being built in the US and I predict they will soon become commonplace in the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China), too, as their infrastructure and product needs change.

I think the next step, though, is CCMs, or what I will call Consolidated Control Mills. The trend in corporations today is more control--look, for instance, at the popularity of software packages such as SAP. Despite huge installation and implementation costs, SAP and its competitors have revolutionized cost control in large corporations. However, this step has not been quite "real time" for processes.

Up until now, we have believed real time processes must be controlled by people close to the process--in the same building. However, control systems have gotten to the point it is time to start exploring the idea of consolidated control--a master control room that real time operates mills across the country and around the world. In this scenario, we can place the best operators in one room in one place, utilizing their collective years of expertise to optimize and maximize the operation of machines manufacturing like grades across a company. At the local level, less experienced operators could be in place to make all the local adjustments necessary, as well as to handle startups, shutdowns and upsets.

I saw a similar thing on a cruise ship over seven years ago. Us landlubbers all think ships are piloted from the Bridge. Not so. I went on a behind-the-scenes tour of the engine room on this particular ship. At the time we were sailing across the Gulf of Mexico and were not within 200 nautical miles of land. The ship was under control of an operator sitting at a computer in the engine room, probably ten feet below the water line in an obviously windowless place. When the ship was transiting between harbors as we were at the time, the engine room took complete control, for from the engine room they could optimize fuel burn and other performance factors of not much interest to the Bridge. The Bridge was in control only when the Bridge needed to be in control, i.e., when land was nearby. The controls were set up so the Bridge was the "master"--they could take control from the engine room any time they wanted to do so. But the preferential mode was to leave the engine room in control as much as possible for from that place they had the data and expertise to optimize the ship.

We could do the same with Consolidated Control. Where to place these Consolidated Control Rooms? Headquarters is a logical spot. However, a better spot may be adjacent to the campus of a university with a strong pulp and paper graduate program. Such a location would give these high level operators and their managers easy access to the latest concepts.

For safety this week, let us consider that safety is always local. Why? Because other than sunburn, I cannot think of any remote system, under normal conditions, which can affect our health. So, focus on your locale as you think about safety.

Be safe and we will talk next week.

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