For Valmet’s Timo Valkama, the paper industry has always been a family affair. In fact, he represents the third generation of papermakers in the family line.
Before joining local paper producer Schauman in the family base of Pietarsaari on Finland’s west coast, Valkama’s father also worked for Valmet, both then and now a major developer and supplier of technologies and services for the pulp, paper and energy industries.
Timo Valkama, Senior Paper Technology Manager, Valmet
“He began as a machinery manufacturer before moving to the paper industry,” Valkama explains, “whereas I went the other way around.” Beginning his career in Metsä-Serla in 1987, which later was part of Metsä Group’s predecessor company M-Real, by 2013 Valkama found himself working from the same office his father had once occupied at Valmet.
His career has covered a broad range of the paper industry’s many facets: “I haven’t been involved in what we call traditional board, but I have spent a lot of time with fine papers and today, mostly deal with specialty paper producers – they are at the heart of what I do at the moment.”
PRESERVING PAPER-MAKING KNOWLEDGE
In his role as Senior Paper Technology Manager, Valkama works on many of Valmet’s major sales cases, assisting paper producers the world over with their often very specific requirements. But a backbone of industry knowledge is behind all of this work, and it is tempting to look into how it was acquired. Are these skills something that can be taught? Where are they to be found in the modern paper industries? And is there a challenge in sourcing and developing them?
“I personally think that every paper mill should have the know-how to achieve the best possible optimisation of the furnish, for example,” says Valkama, “but sadly this is no longer very often the case. Economic pressures have had such a strong impact on manpower that our customers are often looking to suppliers to resolve these kinds of issues.”
Valkama is intimately familiar with the services offered by Metsä Fibre, and sees them as complementary to the outlook provided by his colleagues at Valmet.
“When we are working together, it’s easy to witness Metsä Fibre’s aim of optimising the performance of the pulp with the equipment that the customer has purchased. In tandem with this, our own motivation is to ensure the equipment is working correctly and at the optimal dimensional flow or capacity.”
Whether the intention is to optimise the paper-making process, maximise energy efficiency, or improve strength, the concept of improvement is, of course, never far away. This is where Valkama differentiates between the supplier offering and the responsibilities of a mill’s personnel.
“You have to remember that from the mill owner’s point of view,” he says, “the priority is to keep it running constantly, and their people will constantly be working towards that. If you have 50,000 orders per year, you have to make sure that they are fulfilled and the paper is delivered – as ordered and on time.”
With such delivery targets firmly in sight at all times, Valkama maintains, customers generally do not have the time or dedicated resources to concentrate on optimisation. He also emphasises the detailed level at which such improvements are conducted.
“When we are working together, it’s easy to witness Metsä Fibre’s aim of optimising the performance of the pulp with the equipment that the customer has purchased.”
“The more demanding the production, the smaller the details we are talking about, and many of them are even invisible to the daily operators of the equipment. Changing the position of a component by less than a degree can represent a performance increase.”
Such attention to detail mirrors the attitude and methodology of Metsä Fibre’s Technical Customer Service team. With a shared approach as refined as this one, it is little wonder the two companies have made agile and effective partners on a number of customer projects.
A QUESTION OF PERSPECTIVE
As someone who has been in the paper industry for decades, Valkama has witnessed first-hand this gradually reduced emphasis on the need for know-how on customer premises. It may well be that the lessons of the past are being forgotten.
“This is one of the big challenges that all suppliers have in the paper industry today. Paper-making know-how is getting thinner and thinner, to the point where even the knowledge itself is becoming under-valued. This leads to the situation where, for example, a customer may not be aware that they even lack the expertise in their organisation, or that certain skill sets or techniques even exist at all.”
The increasing scarcity of specialist knowledge in the industry may also be compounded by educational issues, he speculates. This goes beyond the relatively easy to grasp metrics of the number of graduating engineers or doctorates awarded each year, for example, to cover the hands-on practice of paper making itself, and the many disciplines involved.
Valkama maintains that even though his customers usually know best within their own case, their view does nonetheless have its limitations. Suppliers, on the other hand, with experience of a larger range of materials and technologies, surely have a wider perspective, which the customer is in a position to take advantage of.
“We don’t necessarily have the answer to every specific problem,” he concedes, “but that experience does often put us in a good situation to speculate.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF NETWORKING
Valkama also sees the limited networking possibilities available to paper producers as a major issue.
“Naturally, a mill which has developed its own ‘innovations’ through extensive trial and error may well see themselves as having invented part of the process. But looking beyond that environment, a supplier might see that the same technique or production method has been in use elsewhere for years.”
With this in mind, communication with suppliers and absorption of their knowledge of the technology climate should not be overlooked.
Communication with suppliers and absorption of their knowledge of the technology climate should not be overlooked.
Asked to put himself in the customer’s shoes and explain how best he would draw upon the varied skills of his suppliers, Valkama is contemplative: “This is something I often wonder. As a customer, I would obviously be tempted to believe I know these skills quite thoroughly. I would say that the best approach would be to sit down with, for example, the machinery supplier and the raw-material supplier, point out the challenge and where I was headed, and ask them where they can best contribute.”
CUSTOMER BENEFITS WITH NEW SETS OF EYES
Valkama makes the observation that different categories of supplier will take a different view of any installation, and that the point of view of each provides the basis for their offering, when seen as extending beyond the initial product.
“You can easily be in a situation where the equipment that the company is using are over-dimensioned or under-dimensioned for a certain production level,” he explains. “It’s likely that the supplier of the raw material wouldn’t notice that – I’d expect them to be more concentrated upon how to optimise the furnish or the refining in relation to their pulp, with the existing equipment. We would first look at the dimensioning and see whether this combination of parts is fit for the purpose at all.”
Both parties take a systematic approach, he believes, but the specific perspective of each allows them to quickly identify where to be of best use to the customer. Used in conjunction in this way, it is evident that an open-minded approach to suppliers’ offerings may provide some of the most important benefits available to the modern paper maker.