The big picture

Metsä Fibre's technical customer service experts are on the brink of adding value to the production processes of entire new markets.
TEXT: IAN FENTON, PHOTO: METSÄ FIBRE

"If I were a paper mill owner," Tom Nickull tells us, "I would have my organisation do benchmarking with all the raw material suppliers. They can tell us about their chemical pulp, what they are offering, what the product is, what the service level is, and we'd make them analyse how they can help us."

"The price of the pulp is obviously important," he continues, "but I would try to make my organisation understand the value of the whole model, the entire chain. That way we'd see who could give us the most added value at the end of the day."

It's all about making our customers' lives easier

Luckily for Metsä Fibre's customers, who could do without such a formidable competitor, Mr Nickull is no mill owner in reality, but rather the company's Vice President, Technical Customer Service. Asked to place himself in the shoes of papermakers in fledgling markets such as south-eastern Europe, the above was his considered response.

No stranger to the value of looking at the bigger picture, Tom's credo is that selecting the right pulp only tells half the story: every variety of fibre demands optimisation of the paper production process to guarantee the maximum possible strength for the end product, as well as the most economical way to reach that result: in other words, the relative amount of expensive softwood to employ.

Filling the gap

There is already a huge amount of expert knowledge contributing to the average paper production process, taking into consideration the advice of machinery suppliers and the customer’s own employees. From the outset, Metsä Fibre’s Technical Customer Service team work on the basis that the suppliers know their machines in detail and that customers know how to handle their product. This isn’t a question of telling experts how to do their jobs, but there is a crucial gap somewhere in between these skill sets: fibre expertise.

Even the highest grades of pulp can’t achieve their maximum strength without the proper treatment. In practice, this often means using more softwood than is actually necessary. By refining in an optimal manner, use of this resource – often the most expensive component for tissue paper producers – can potentially be reduced significantly, while increasing the hardwood content in the total furnish leads to a higher softness potential.

Another cost which can be abated by updating the refining process is that of electricity. Paper mills typically run at a very high level of consumption, and energy costs are huge. Modifications to the refining system can reduce these power needs, bringing the customer another reduction in expenditure.

Taking it from the top

But where the Technical Customer Service team are perhaps at their most useful is in the start-up phase, when a new or reconditioned paper machine is being taken into use for the first time. This is of particular relevance to those markets seeing particularly encouraging growth, which is why the team currently has its “Botnia Start-Up Kit” solution in mind for South-Eastern Europe.

This service comprises involved collaboration with both the customer and their machinery supplier, helping them to achieve a good start-up curve on a new or rebuilt paper machine. In a comprehensive collaboration, Metsä Fibre Technical Customer Service assist the customer or machine supplier at the very beginning, during the planning stage.

By gathering data on the installed machinery, selecting pulps represented by Metsä Fibre and the fillers used (or gathering data on the pulp used in cases where it is sourced elsewhere), and preparing targets for the stock preparation and base paper specifications, the team is then able to make recommendations on both the furnish and the refining process. These are key in order to achieve an ideally smooth start up, as a number of the company’s key customers have discovered.

Goal-oriented production

Another facet of the Technical Customer Service team’s competences which can deliver lasting value to the customer is its ability to assist with an organisation’s long-term goals. This often stems from the realisation on the part of the customer that dramatic improvements can be made through a detailed look at their processes, and that such leaps in performance can facilitate the fulfilment of ambitious targets.

An understanding of the complex relationship between the pulp grades employed, the furnish, and the refining process – along with a number of other factors – can actually enable strategic-level decisions within a company. To help foster such a situation, Metsä Fibre hosts Key Account Management meetings with customers who have particular ambitions in mind: the need to dramatically reduce production costs across a number of facilities, for example.

We know how to get the most out of the different fibres

Providing an interface between Metsä Fibre’s service experts and R&D specialists, and the customer’s management team, means that operative issues can be identified to help accomplish high-level goals. “We know how to get the most out of the different fibres,” Tom tells us, “so the customer can achieve their goals, whether it’s productivity, cost, or product end quality.” The Technical Customer Service team can then take a closer look at the facilities in question to actualise these improvements.

In this way, at best the team are able to help their clients communicate better internally, bringing together purchasers, operational personnel and management to ensure that papermaking operations generate larger quantities of the highest grade of product possible, for the lowest achievable cost. This also helps to circumvent organisational challenges. For example, the personnel who oversee pulp purchasing may not be able to exert influence over the refining process itself. A top-down collaboration can help eliminate issues like these altogether.

BlAZING A TRAIL

In south-eastern Europe, Metsä Fibre’s Technical Customer Service team has so far been active only in a limited number of trial cases. This is a complex part of the company’s offering, and is not an expense for the customer in the conventional sense, but rather accompanies the development of a long-term relationship between pulp supplier and paper producer.

The central issue is confidence in Metsä Fibre’s expertise, which needs to be won in the field. But Tom is certain that with the signs of continuous growth in the region, before long the team will be deeply involved with the region’s pulp market: “With the Botnia Start-Up Kit, it’s not a matter of walking into a new customer’s premises and imposing changes. We know that the recognition of what we’re offering has to take place first.”

This most often takes the form of smaller – yet potentially very lucrative – changes to an existing process. What’s important is simply that the customer clearly perceives the benefit of fibre expertise in action. A case in point would be Romania’s Pehart, profiled later in this magazine (‘Falling into place’, page 18), who after several years of buying pulp from Metsä Fibre, are now demonstrating interest in how the company can help them to optimise their processes.

Tom compares this area and the potential it offers to Turkey and to China, two relatively new markets that are gradually showing more of an appetite for advice on the production process. “We started really deep cooperation with our Chinese customers around three years ago,” he explains. “We started with basic refining optimisation, furnish optimisations, then we did a few Start-Up Kits, and now we have begun to be invited by big companies’ R & D departments to join their sessions and give our input.”

“We have to start with small steps, he concludes, “but as we earn their trust, the customers start to see how our expertise and know-how really brings added value to their processes. In the end, it’s all about making their lives easier.”

cHINA: tHE BENCHMARK

Metsä Fibre Technical Customer Service has found that helping new partners in emerging markets is also an excellent opportunity to create added value for established paper manufacturers with some degree of untapped potential.

Tissue paper has been one of the fastest growing areas in China in recent years, due to improving living standards, the emergence of the middle class, and the country’s rapid urbanisation. However, this has been tempered by increased consciousness of cost and efficiency, and the growing need for more sustainable solutions. The ramp-up stage of a new plant is therefore the ideal point at which to apply Metsä Fibre’s expertise over the entire paper production process, as customers have swiftly understood.

By training machine operators in refining, process optimisation, and end product optimisation, the Metsä Fibre Technical Customer Service team have been able to help Chinese customers develop their production practices. One such customer, a papermaker with over 20 years experience behind him, enthused that this was the first time his staff had been trained in fibre treatment – a clear example of adding value where it matters.

More info:
Tom Nickull, VP, Technical Customer Service, Metsä Fibre Finland, tom.nickull@metsagroup.fi

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