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What is Happening to Our Industry Conferences?

When I joined the industry in the 1960s, there was a national conference in most of the significant pulp and paper producing countries. Those I knew best, in the United States and Canada, were high quality. Attendance was huge and a large proportion of attendees were mill personnel. Good technical papers were presented and discussed, accompanied by useful exhibitions of equipment. Most of the vendors sent top-notch technical people. The overall result was that there was lots to be learned in both the formal presentations and in the social networking that was always active.

From the 1960s until about 2000, the number of conferences increased. I felt that the quality of technical information presented, and hence its value to the attendees, improved until the mid-1990s. Since then, quality declined somewhat, as the ratio of papers by promoters of equipment and services gradually overwhelmed presentations by mill staff, researchers, and others who had firsthand knowledge of what the real producers needed. Since about 1990, attendance by mill personnel has declined disastrously, and the number of conferences has dropped precipitously.

The pulp and paper industry conferences put on by the North American organizations are normally very well run on the nuts-and-bolts level. Good facilities, excellent organization, program planning, etc. When I have attended conferences outside the industry, I have rarely found them so well run.

Many authors have proclaimed that attending the industry conferences pays handsome dividends in the form of problems solved and costs avoided by staffers who learned of other mills’ solutions at conferences. I agree with this philosophy, and will throw in one supporting anecdote.

In the mid-1990s, I participated in a discussion on membership in PAPTAC’s Environment Committee. The chairman noted that several well-known companies did not support staff in attending the committee and conferences, while others did. At the time, I had a project that involved summarizing the capital expenditure for effluent treatment systems across Canada. I noticed that the nonsupportive companies spent from 50% to 100% more on complying with regulations than the companies that had staff actively involved. It is hardly surprising; competent people who also know how others solve problems similar to their own will make better decisions than those living in the dark and relying on their own trial and error, along with what salesmen tell them.

I have always found the social networking at the pulp and paper industry conferences to be useful, and enjoyable. After meeting someone, it is much more effective to call or email them with questions. Of course, I do not expect mill staff to divulge an employer’s confidential business information, but I do expect comments like, “Product X worked very well for a few months, but maintenance became too expensive, so we dropped it.”

Some companies see such cooperation as reducing their competitive advantage, but I disagree. Through the 1990s I did a lot of consulting work for Canadian and U.S. environmental regulators, which led to my accessing a considerable amount of cost information that is normally confidential. I noticed that the companies with the greatest reluctance to share know-how generally had higher costs for chemicals and energy than those with a more open attitude. Those that were reluctant to share information reasoned that they were protecting their superior know-how; in fact they had been by-passed and did not realize it. All the companies still compete in the marketplace, and I do not believe the competition is diminished by intelligent technical discussion between staff members, particularly in areas such as safety and environmental protection.

A common response of managers when asked why they do not send staff to conferences is that times are tight, and no money is available. However, the very fact that times are tight is all the more reason to improve mill performance. Knowledgeable personnel can always find ways to reduce operating costs in a plant as complex as a pulp or paper mill.

Speaking with mill staff, I have noticed another common response to the effect that, “Most of the papers are by vendors. I can have them come to the mill and give me the same information any time I am interested.” Sadly, this is all too true nowadays.

Getting mill staff back on the speaker’s podium will not be easy, particularly in view of mill staff reductions over the past 20 years.

In my experience, mill staffers who write conference papers usually do so on their own time, whereas authors from companies with something to sell at the conference support the staff strongly. For an academic, writing a paper is part of his or her normal duties.

The best way I can see to get things rolling is for conference organizers to pay mill staff -- and ONLY mill staff (not researchers, academics, vendors, or head office staff) -- an honorarium for preparing and personally presenting a paper. I consider that $1000 would be a suitable amount. TAPPI and PAPTAC have told me in the past that that would be too expensive. However, $1000 would represent approximately the marginal profit on two attendee fees at a typical conference.

In addition to attracting registrants to the papers, the kind of person from a mill who can present a good paper has lots of the best kind of know-how to share in the conference informally. These people attract others.


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