How to stay ahead of the curve - Thiele

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How to stay ahead of the curve - Thiele

March 07, 2010 - 14:00
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BRUSSELS, March 8, 2010 (RISI) -Founded in 1946 with production beginning on Jan. 1, 1947, Georgia-based Thiele is a pioneer in the kaolin sector. The company can produce 1.5 million tons/yr of various kaolin grades (hydrous, calcined and airfloat clays) from its two production facilities in Sandersville and Wrens (Reedy Creek), GA. Besides a full line of tailored kaolin products (coating and filler grade clays) for the paper industry, Thiele also supplies products for the paint, building products, plastic and concrete industries. Still, the paper industry is the company's No. 1 market. And now, Thiele has developments underway that will lead it into the pulping sector.

Privately held, the company employs approximately 450 people in North America and Europe. Between 1997and 2009, the company spent more than $135 million on capex projects including the building and expansion of its slurry facility in Wisconsin, an inkjet pigment production unit, installation of a heat recovery system to control energy costs and a new calciner.

Thiele has 13 active pit mines in Georgia

Changing global markets

Consolidation has been the name of the game in the pulp and paper industry over the past 20 years, not only among the producers but also among the suppliers. Take kaolin as one example. In 1990, there were 20 major producers; now, there are fewer than 10 major producers.

Georgia is the center of the kaolin industry in North America and supplies industries worldwide. Although there are some deposits in California, they tend to be high in crystalline silica. Worldwide, kaolin is also mined in the UK, Brazil, China, Australia and Europe (Germany, Ukraine).

As many other North American suppliers to the industry have discovered, increasingly, opportunities lie overseas. "We have changed with the changes in the pulp and paper industry," explains Eric Tillirson, Vice President of Sales and Marketing. "Our largest growth opportunities are international, although we have been able to increase our market share in North America (despite the downturn). We've seen customers migrate to us in the last five years because we are a stable company." In fact, Thiele has the largest proven reserves in North America.

Currently, the Japanese market is important to Thiele; eastern Europe is growing, and the company sees India as a potentially important client. The company also expects to do more business in China, where the total market for imported clay is approximately 400,000 tons/yr . However, North American quality is superior,and the domestic Chinese clay is mostly used in base coating applications. The quality issue trumps freight costs. Thiele ships the dry, powdered clay in containers (26 one-ton bags per container) from the port of Savannah, GA, to three ports in China.

Most slurry from kaolin is shipped by rail tank car

Cost and performance - A balancing act

In this day and age, cost and economics are at the forefront of customer concerns. Producers are looking to use kaolin to reduce more expensive additives such as titanium dioxide. That's been true for some time and will not change.

But, suppliers such as Thiele are caught between a rock and a hard place. There is a squeeze on costs but end use applications are becoming more demanding and, as a result, paper producers are demanding more for less.

Thiele produces more than 30 products designed for pulp and paper applications (coating and fillers). For example, light weight coated papers need good printability, brightness and opacity so delaminated clays fit well. Calcined clays fit well when brightness and opacity are critical.

As noted, cost is a driver. Sometimes a supplier can bring value but it's not necessarily with the cheapest clay. "As mills try to drive costs down,
this becomes more important," says Kirschling. "There's been a clear shift in the past 24 to 36 months to how a mill can downgrade a formulation while still meeting the necessary paper specs." In other words, Thiele's job"has become tougher," Kirschling admits.

Still, Thiele designs products for each specific application and works with customers to stay up-to-date on changing needs, adjusting those products accordingly. How the clay is applied, for example - rod or blade - helps dictate the type of product used.

Clay rheology also determines gloss, brightness, opacity and smoothness. The various printing processes - roto, offset, digital - also figure into the equation. For example, rotogravure is much different than offset.

Mining is done selectively by grade

Anticipating customer needs

As papermaking and printing processes evolve and become more sophisticated, suppliers such as Thiele must stay ahead of the curve. As Tillirson puts it, "We have to run faster to keep developing innovative products for our customers, anticipating their current and future needs."

But, as costs become an issue for paper producers, this situation can also become an opportunity for the suppliers. Take fillers as an example. This sector was historically not a big market for kaolin products. Although Thiele historically provided kaolin products for SC papers in North America (tailored blended products), in 2006, Thiele went through a major rationalization process that reviewed product lines. As a result, the company exited the supply of filler clays for the most part during this period.

However, thanks to an extensive R&D effort, Thiele is now looking at new opportunities to use kaolin as a filler in grades such as brown papers that did not traditionally use clay. Because fiber costs are an issue, paper producers are learning to substitute fiber with a filler without sacrificing strength. Now, the filler sector could become more important than ever to Thiele.

Thiele must conform to strict reclamation regulations after a site is mined out

World class R&D

Led by Prakash Malla, Thiele has a large pulp and paper R&D presence. "We understand the importance of R&D," says Malla. The company spends 4% of sales annually on R&D. Centered in Sandersville, GA, the company's main campus includes a 19,000-ft2R&D center and a 4,000-ft2paper research and applications lab. Thiele also has a pilot plant for new product development and process improvement. It includes pilot-scale equipment such as a calciner, vacuum filters, centrifuges, ozone generator and contactor, spray dryers, pressure reactor, grinding mills, flotation column and various mixers and screens.

Malla's department has five groups: analytical services, core testing, materials research, mineral processing, and fine particle technology. Research is done on customer request, or it can be initiated in-house. "If customers trust us with their technical data, we can develop a product for them," Malla explains.

Malla points out one European mill where paper machine trials were so successful, the customer was able to replicate lab test data.

"We also do a lot of work internally and have been able to accomplish a lot," he adds, noting that the facility has its own lab-scale coater. Thiele also seeks involvement with major machinery suppliers such as Metso and research institutions such as the CIC and KCL when appropriate..

In any chemical product development, safety is an all important issue. The kaolin industry is highly regulated. International regulations such as REACH are taking an increasing amount of technical and regulatory affairs personnel's time. "Substance safety is an area where we are investing a lot of time," says Kirschling. In fact, failure to comply would be disastrous, as it would mean lost markets.

Emerging technologies

Among Thiele's emerging technologies:

  • High performance delaminated products
  • High strength filler products
  • Chemically modified products.

Malla points out that a kaolin-based material for inkjet printing is a Thiele innovation. Another product, TAG HY, a hybrid material that addresses the cost reduction goals of producers, can replace titanium dioxide.

Thiele is also entering the realm of deinking with DEKA. DEKA 2000 (for flotation deinking) and DEKA 3000 (for wash deinking) combine the improved ink particle-collecting ability of modified kaolin with a deinking surfactant that is proven to give more efficient separation and removal of ink particles from recycled paper fibers.

In addition to these commercially available products, much work is being devoted to obtaining a better understanding of particle shape and size to build coating structures. Also, a lot of effort is being spent in metered size press applications, studying opportunities to develop new products. Finally, there is the field of curtain coating technology and as Malla says, "What will that lead us to do?"

How it’s mined
Kaolin is mined using the open pit method. Thiele owns or leases about 50,000 acres and currently has 13 active mine pits in Georgia. The Georgia Environmental Protection Department must approve and certify all activities at the mine sites.
First, core samples are taken (400-ft center). The samples are graded before mining begins. Mining is done selectively by grade, and Thiele’s quality assurance group certifies that the blends are correct. The kaolin is slurried, cleaned and sent by pipeline to the processing facilities. This is much less expensive and environmentally friendly than shipping by truck or railcar.
Once at the processing plant, the kaolin goes through screening and magnetic separation to remove impurities. It should be noted that the purer the product the more sophisticated the process, for example, high brightness kaolin is produced in column flotation and/or selective flocculation processing.
There are two standard processing methods: waterwash and air float. The latter is used mostly for filler clays and production steps include crushing, drying and pulverizing the crude product, then removing impurities and oversized particles.
The waterwash process is more complicated. High shear machinery begins the process. A dispersed clay water suspension is prepared and impurities removed. This suspension is fractionated into the desired particle size with centrifuges. Coarser particles are delaminated by mechanically shearing the stacks with extruders or attrition mills. Classification is critical as particle size can drive application performance.
Brightness and color are improved through chemical leaching and magnetic separation. Most of the water and added chemicals are then removed by rotary vacuum filters. Energy consumption is always important, so water removal is critical.
The final product can be shipped dry or in slurry form. For North America, the slurried product is shipped mostly by rail car. Dry product is shipped in bags or bulk. Internationally, the kaolin is all shipped dry in bulk or bags.
Thiele operates two slurry facilities outside of Georgia: one in Wisconsin Rapids and one in Gavle, Sweden. The Swedish facility operates under the name Thiele Nordic and has a capacity of more than 100,000 tons/yr.
Finally, Georgia has a strict reclamation law and for every acre of land mined, one must be reclaimed. Once mining is complete, work begins almost immediately to restore the land to its natural state. The mining and reclamation cycle is usually about seven years.