Cutting-edge technology keeps papermaker rolling

Cutting-edge technology keeps papermaker rolling

Wisconsin Rapids, Wis. – The roar of a paper machine is something to hear. The spray of pulp onto the wire, the rush of air from the dryers – it’s the sound of industry.
But it’s not the only sound.
If you want to hear the sounds of the paper industry moving forward, walk down the line a bit at Stora Enso’s No. 16 paper machine complex. Stroll past the automatic rail handling system and listen to the hum as it carries 33-ton reels down the line. Listen to the hiss of paper on steel as the supercalendering system actually paints and polishes the paper.
One spot you won’t hear a lot of extra noise is at No. 16’s finishing line, where reels are cut into smaller rolls for conversion into sheets.

Integrating IT with the line

Photo courtesy of Stora Enso

Where employees once pressed buttons to enter data such as size and finish diameter of rolls, new equipment installed last year tracks the position of slitters and interfaces with the mill’s IT system. The system integrates customer order patterns in real time with the finishing system and instructs the slitters to cut rolls accordingly. The system tracks everything from average speed of the winders to the diameter of the finished rolls and displays the data on-screen for operators, who then print up roll tickets with bar codes.
“That was a pretty big effort,” IT manager Doug Slovensky said of the upgrade. “That’s probably he biggest change we’ve had in IT in this area in the last few years. It greatly affected what the average hourly employee was doing. It made them more efficient – they spend less time working on data entry and more time focusing on quality and making paper.”
That move to automation nowhere is more evident than in the mill’s converting facility. Like Star Wars droids, 50 automated guided vehicles (AGVs) squawk like robotic geese as they carry paper rolls throughout the converting plant, guided by an in-ground system of wires. The wires might be antiquated compared to today’s laser- and RF-guided systems, but nevertheless do what the company needs done – move paper efficiently.
The AGVs represent the vanguard of the mill’s high-tech revolution, which began in earnest in 1992 when the mill still was owned by Consolidated Papers.
Moving to more automation that year was precipitated by the construction of a new paper machine. Penned in by the Wisconsin River and Wisconsin Highway 34, the No. 16 mill couldn’t grow outward. Instead it grew up – 96 feet up.

Automated storage

The converting facility, where rolls are cut into sheets, is the largest in North America. Rolls weighing up to four tons apiece are transported from the finishing line by AGV to the nine-story, 300-foot-deep automated sheet roll warehouse. A double-masted robotic lift tower then transports the rolls to an open slot, and the roll’s new location is recorded in the mill’s database.
After rolls are cut, the sheets are packed by machine into cartons; the cartons then are palletized and stored in an even bigger automated finished goods warehouse.
Automating the system cuts expenses in several ways, foremost among them damaged goods. Slovensky said that in the past, a roll had to be manually transported numerous times before it was converted. By the time it hit the sheeters, several inches of the outside diameter often were damaged.
“It’s a huge amount of savings in product damage,” Slovensky said. “When operators on the machines need paper to cut, they use the computer and say, `Bring me paper.’ In a few minutes, the correct rolls of paper are delivered with no damage. The system is extremely accurate and efficient.”
Pat Schillinger, president of the Wisconsin Paper Council, said similar systems are running elsewhere in the state. At one mill that he declined to name, no humans are allowed to enter the warehouses. Robots move the paper to ensure no human error either in handling or storage to the high-end papers produced there.
IT also saves inventory-tracking time. Before the IT Revolution of ’92, mill personnel overbooked trucks because they knew inventory records would be that far off. Today, the surprise comes when something actually does go awry.
“Now you release a load for picking, and boom-boom, here it comes,” Slovensky said. “Something unusual has to happen for this thing to get off a little bit, and usually we catch it right away.”
Once picked, a pallet heads to a custom labeling station, where robotic labelers installed last summer surround a pallet of boxes. Labels with product names like “Fortune Matte and “Gusto Gloss” are printed just in time, and the pallet is whisked away to staging.
The staging system works in real time with orders being taken by inside salespeople, who send them to load planners who decide what rolls go to which trucks. Using a PeopleSoft system, the company’s transportation department then works with carriers to schedule shipping times.

Industry-wide push

That kind of push for automation has put Stora Enso at or near the top of the technology ladder among Wisconsin’s paper companies, according to Schillinger.
“I think the majority of the companies that I’m aware of are looking at every opportunity to use modern technology to enhance their operations,” Schillinger said. “Our mills are under tremendous competitive and economic stress, and they need to, in order to compete in the worldwide marketplace, become … the most efficient producers of paper. And that means trying to use the most modern technology available.”
Unfortunately for the local workforce, the automation that keeps Stora Enso up to speed in that global paper market means less demand for mill workers. “The issue is not to eliminate jobs,” Slovensky said. “The issue is to survive.”
Ironically it is the workers who make the most of the automation the company buys. One example is a lowly monochrome monitor in the middle of the mill’s staging and loading dock. The monitor gives the forklift operators who designed it a snapshot of all the loads on the dock – three picks remaining for a load headed to Michigan, a driver waiting at Door 32, and so on.
“The crews find a way to make best use of the technology,” Slovensky said. “Some of the best tools we have right now were designed and built after the initial startup.”
The drumbeat for new technology at No. 16 keeps thumping. Up in the master control room, Slovensky motions admiringly to the mainframes running the whole shooting match. Built on 32-bit architecture, the system “is solid as a rock,” Slovensky said. But with a system running on older technology, “we’re at the point now where we need to make a major change.” The company plans to outsource much of the project, which likely will last until the end of 2006.
“It’s something we have to do,” Slovensky said. “No computer system lasts forever.”
Paper companies across the state need to embrace that same attitude toward IT, says Schillinger. “If we’re going to succeed in the global marketplace, it’s going to be through innovative technology and really creating value for products,” he said. “That’s where technology is going to come in. Hopefully, we’ll have an advantage going forward.”

Lincoln Brunner is a WTN contributing editor and can be reached at