‘Specialty papers’ is not an easy grouping to define, and so it can be helpful to begin with the industries in which we find their application. The average consumer is likely to see them mostly as a means of packaging goods, but we can also find specialty papers in printing, in construction, and even in an industrial context. A use case here might be in isolating components, for example, to keep them free of moisture or out of contact with other adjacent materials.
Examples of such papers are all around us, in fact, and in common use every day. Peel off a label or sticker from its paper backing, or remove a waterproof plaster from its packaging – you have just made use of a specialty paper, manufactured to serve that precise function.
There is no typical specialty paper machine, but normally they are fairly small and offer enough flexibility to be capable of producing several grades. The number of products and customers is often large, and the product specification – for example, for thickness and porosity – are strict. This is due to the high demands of the next process steps such as lamination or surface treatment.
One of the major end uses for those companies producing specialty paper is that of packaging products, where it may take the form of plain brown or white-surfaced paper, or flexible packaging paper. The latter is normally coated on one side only, with the other side laminated or attached to another material such as plastic film. Another popular application is release paper, which is also an accessible product for fine paper producers to manufacture with their existing equipment.
METSÄ FIBRE'S PATH TO SPECIALTY PAPERS
With increasing pressures in the field of printing and writing paper over the last two decades, turning to serve more specialised niches in the marketplace has become an appealing option for paper makers. This was enabled on one hand by that same flexibility of paper-making machinery already highlighted. A standard paper machine can tackle certain specialities without the need for extensive modifications – although, as we shall discover, the production techniques differ and specialty products require considerable specialist knowledge.
In parallel, Metsä Fibre’s own production of pulp grades adapted to serve the market as it developed. Establishing a high-strength pulp with long fibres was an early goal, but customers were soon demanding more from the product, particularly as sustainability began to rise in the public consciousness early in the last decade.
One product very suitable for specialty paper applications is Metsä Fibre’s Botnia Nordic Strong RMA, now considered to be Europe’s best reinforcement pulp. In addition to the high tensile strength and elastic modulus, which is a hallmark of Metsä Fibre’s long-fibre pulps, Botnia Nordic Strong RMA gives excellent tear resistance and burst strength.
“This pulp is a true product of systematic development,” says Fibre Technology Manager Tari Väätäinen, “from the raw material management process all the way to the customer interface. Accordingly, it has received excellent feedback, both from printing- and specialty-paper customers.”
SKETCHING THE MARKET
But how does one measure interest in this category? While the market is difficult to judge precisely due to the lack of a firm definition of the term ‘specialty papers’, surveying the projections of the leading consultants in the area leads us to a figure of roughly 23 million tonnes annually for white (kraft-based) specialty paper.
It is important to note that for a pulp producer, specialty paper currently shows high market potential both in Europe and Asia. “The more established players in Europe are the key producers of specialities today,” says Kirsi Hirvonen, Fibre Technology Manager. “The knowledge base is largely here, which is very important – the paper makers leading the trends are well informed and have solid research behind them and long-term customer cooperation. They know what they are doing, and this helps shape the market.”
Nevertheless, Metsä Fibre have also noted considerable customer interest in Botnia Nordic Strong RMA in China, where specialities represent a relatively new and growing area. In grades such as art paper and laminating paper in particular, growth in China has been rapid and the total capacity of specialty papers actually exceeded the European level two to three years ago.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PAPER MAKING EXPERTISE
Specialty paper making certainly poses some unique challenges. For Metsä Fibre, the issue is made even more complex by a lack of transparency over the customer’s processes, made necessary by the highly secretive nature of brand customer agreements (and the requirements made within).
“We regularly see situations in which a specialty paper customer would prefer not to share the specifications of their end product with their suppliers,” says Koponen, “due to the stipulations of their own customer, who may be a large international brand, for example.”
The furnish and refining optimisation Metsä Fibre offers not only provide runnability, but also a better bottom line.
Such a situation often demands long-term relationships and close cooperation between the pulp supplier, paper maker and their own customer, which in turn can lead to optimization of the process with the help of Metsä Fibre’s Technical Customer Service department. The optimisation toolbox consists of a large variety of service packages such as Botnia FIT, Botnia Start-up Kit and Botnia Wet-end Kit, which many customers have found extremely effective. The furnish and refining optimisation the company offers not only provide runnability, but also a better bottom line. This is an area in which the company excels, thanks to its own long history in paper making, among other factors.
With specialty papers produced in lots far smaller than conventional products, quality and consistency are even more critical than in conventional paper production. The paper maker’s customer will often strictly monitor quality requirements, and no inconsistencies will be tolerated.
“Entire categories within the area of specialty papers often see an end use such as food packaging or medical supplies,” points out Kirsi Hirvonen. “As a brand owner, if the product relates to food or requires some other acceptance, you can see why the quality control is so very strict. This also generates long lead times as a product is developed, because with every new package, consumers could react strongly if there is even a slight issue.”
FOLLOWING THE VALUE CHAIN
Metsä Fibre quickly realised that with the end product under such intense scrutiny, it was important to understand the needs of the end customer, and therefore conducted extensive benchmarking across Europe. There are a huge number of small paper producers active across the continent, all with diverse customer needs and a large roster of small converting customers.
Raili Koponen, Development Manager at Metsä Fibre, feels that the need to take account of these end customers’ needs is greater than ever, but also that the company has a strong head start based on its existing experience.
Metsä Fibre has a number of excellent references thanks to its long involvement in the field.
“I think we have a good, solid understanding thanks to our participation in a number of research projects across a large network of universities, and our development work on other papers.”
The company also has a number of excellent references thanks to its long involvement in the paper field – some of Metsä Fibre’s customers have been using its pulp in the production of specialities for many years. With a history like this, as well as a keen eye on the development of customer and convertor needs, success in keeping up with the growth of the area seems assured.