A competitive edge

​Metsä Fibre has won the Excellence Finland Quality Innovation Competition in the large enterprise class for its Botnia Nordic+ softwood pulps. The award also recognizes the company's long-term R&D work and its innovative operating culture.

TEXT: MARJATTA PIETILÄ, PHOTO: METSÄ FIBRE

Metsä Fibre has now won the Quality Innovation Competition of Excellence Finland for the second consecutive year. The company already secured this coveted prize in 2012 for the Botnia FOX index of pulp quality, and has now won again with its Botnia Nordic Pine+ and Botnia Nordic Strong+ softwood pulps.

The competition awards committee assessed the novelty value of the innovation, its practical utility, and the systematic track record of the associated background R&D work. The judges found that Botnia Nordic+ softwood pulps are changing old notions of pulp quality in the industry and they commended the sustained R&D work and innovative operating culture of Metsä Fibre.

Innovation work is part of continuous improvement

Botnia Nordic+ softwood pulps are based on a polysulfide cooking concept that emerged from Metsä Fibre's product and process R&D as an application of a previously known manufacturing method for a modern pulp mill process.

Innovation work of this kind is part of systematic R&D pursued under a policy of continuous improvement at Metsä Fibre that seeks to highlight the ideas of company staff, customers and other stakeholder and to refine them for practical use. External quality reviews such as participation in the Excellence Finland competition also help to enhance the innovation process.

New product innovations nevertheless remain characteristically rare in the pulp industry, and mainly concern improved process performance in the form of more consistent quality, better operability in customer processes, or additional services for customers. Innovations may also help to enhance operating processes.

Major R&D work

The Metsä Fibre softwood pulp research underlying the quality innovation began at the turn of the century, with specific R&D work on the polysulfide concept emerging three years ago. Discussion of a polysulfide pulp manufacturing process originally developed in the 1940s led to the formulation of a process concept suitable for a modern pulp digester. The process solution eventually deployed in Joutseno came about through many years of R&D work on softwood pulp at Metsä Fibre.

"The polysulfide process oxidizes some of the sulfur in the pulping liquor to form polysulfide, which then prevents hemicellulose from dissolving during cooking. This approach improves the overall process yield, with a potential increase of as much as ten per cent in fiber output on the same machine. It also improves the technical characteristics of the pulp, reducing energy consumption and costs for paper manufacturers. Customers can apply these enhanced fiber characteristics to improve their tissue and fine paper processes," explains Metsä Fibre Technology Director Esko Turunen.

Systematic processes promote a culture of innovation

Kaija Pehu-Lehtonen, Metsä Fibre SVP, Business Development, explains that the strong culture of innovation prevailing at the company also relies on systematic processes.

"Staff may submit ideas through the company suggestion scheme, on an internal electronic innovation forum, or by formally announcing an employee invention. We also have standard procedures for recording any shortcomings detected in internal and external assessments, and for processing any safety, operability and environmental observations made at mills."

Pehu-Lehtonen characterizes innovation as a funnel that collects a large number of ideas for improving products, processes and operations, or for meeting the needs of customers. These ideas are then assessed for feasibility and possible further refinement, with ideas selected for ongoing development emerging from the narrow end of the funnel.

"It's important to discuss every idea and share comments with the person who submitted it. This helps to maintain a culture favorable to innovation. Special remuneration arrangements have been integrated into the company suggestions scheme and the system for registering employee inventions, and some ideas can also be rewarded spontaneously," Pehu-Lehtonen says.

"We also use a concept tool for reviewing customer requirements and ideas. We arrange Innovation Days for our customers, and we endeavour to develop various innovation tools for them as well."

The most promising ideas are then referred to R&D for formulation into projects to be implemented either internally or in partnership with the customer. Proven innovations that enhance processes may be deployed immediately, whereas bringing a commercial innovation onto the market may take many years.

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