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Week of 20 November 2017: Now let's get practical, part 1

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In the first two weeks of Innovation and Strategy month we have talked about theory and the principles you might consider in approaching Innovation and Strategy in your own mill or company. It is time to get real and talk about opportunities and threats we all face today.

I am going to assume that if you have made it this far, you are making grades of paper or paperboard that are sustainable. For, as we all know, the industry has gone through a complete and thorough, shall we say, "marketing purge," whose genesis can be staked to about 1994, the start of the commercialization of the internet. In this purge some grades thrived and some died. However, this can now be declared to be history for the most part (See my opening column in PaperMoney on 7 Nov 2017).

The immediate threat and concern is simply this: Who is going to operate our mills and who is going to maintain them? We'll take operations this week and maintenance next week.


Save the date! The Pulp and Paper Industry Reliability and Maintenance conference, sponsored by IDCON and Andritz, will be held March 19-22, 2018 in Raleigh, North Carolina.


It is not by happenstance that most major pulp and paper companies these days have a corporate-level person or department called by a title similar to this: "Talent Acquisition Director." We have gone from a period in the late 1990's when one could not get a job in a pulp and paper mill even if willing to work for free to a condition where there are not enough personnel available (in sufficient quantity) and not the right personnel available (of the necessary quality). This condition exists from the lowest level of hourly employee all the way to the Ph.D. level. I know of no mill that has its full complement of approved personnel positions filled nor that has the prospect of having them filled in the near term. This is, of course driving the cost of personnel higher and higher, at a pace well beyond the underlying rate of inflation.

Sadly, the basic, foundational problem, before we even approach the subject of education or experience, is a problem that has slopped over into our domain from society in general. Mills today report that about half the applicants, again at any level, cannot produce a clean drug use record. Half the potentially eligible population cannot make it past this simple first step--their history or their present condition is not drug-free.

For those who can, the operation of mills has become a matter of complexity not seen in the past. Yes, there are people who can sit in front of a computer monitor, or even carry around a tablet loaded with appropriate apps, but they have no sense of what the physical processes and machinery look like or where they are located. They don't know if that pulp line on their screen is as thin as a pencil or the size of a penstock at Hoover Dam. They couldn't find a fan pump without a trained guide. They have no feel for the process. The old timers who do have a feel for the process are often clumsy when it comes to operating the screens that control the processes today (although this second item is getting better as they retire).


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There is a disconnect between the video game aspects of the control room and the real world out beyond the air conditioning and sound-proof glazing, where the pulp and paper production actually occurs.

On top of this, old mills find themselves in a particularly bad predicament. In the old days, the operating control rooms were many, scattered and near the processes. A modern mill design pulls these together in one location where the operators are fewer and in better communication with each other. All modern recycled mills, for instance, have only one control room. Modern pulp mills are the same way. For existing mills to compete with these will require major investments, investments that may doom the mill.

Education and economy will be the watchwords of the future when it comes to personnel and your facilities. This is our practical innovation lesson and strategic thought for the week.

For safety, it follows that fewer people should lead to few opportunities to become injured. However, it just may be that the potential for injuries, while fewer, many mean the opportunities for a cataclysmic series of injuries may be greater, as we lose the feel for the physical operation of the mill.

Be safe and we will talk next week.

It is advertising sales season, and we have produced the best media kit we have ever put together. Ask me for a copy today and put my feet to the fire--make me explain it to you. You can get one by calling me on my cell phone--404-822-3412--or emailing me at As we have been saying, if you like our innovative ways of presenting the news about the pulp and paper industry, I'll suggest you do the following. If you are in a mill and like what you see here, please tell your suppliers what you like to read and who you would like to see them support with their advertising budgets. If you are a supplier, please be aware (we know) we are first in news, (we think) we have the largest audience in the pulp and paper industry worldwide and (we know) we have the lowest advertising costs.


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