Built in 1921, the Fitchburg, MA, mill now the property of Newark Recycled Paperboard Solutions (Newark) has had a colorful history. It was one of 12 mills owned by the Crocker family, which brought papermaking to this small Massachusetts town in the 1800s. At one time, the town was the center of the pulp and paper industry with 14 mills and 43 paper machines.
This mill housed five of those machines as well as a converting facility. Paper made here supplied such notable magazines as the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies Home Journal.
In the 1950s the mill was sold to Weyerhaeuser and later to James River. But hard times befell the mill and it was shut in the late 1980s. In the early 1990s, private investors took over, converted it to use deinked pulp but that did not help and bankruptcy ensued.
At this time, the Newark Group was looking for a graphic board mill, says general manager Dana Pelletier. The Fitchburg mill was up for auction and Newark thought it would be a great location because of the infrastructure for water and power that was already in place. In 2000, Newark won the bidding.
Pelletier, who came to the mill in 2000, says the mill became one of the key players in the book cover industry, but it had a journey to get there.
At the time of the takeover, there were three paper machines on the property but only one was running and the DIP plant had been idled. Then, the DIP plant was sold to Brazil and the three paper machines were dismantled. The decision was made to install two new machines from Voith, both for the production of graphic board. These started up in 2002. A new power boiler was added. The pulper was relocated and some of the stock prep equipment could be re-used.
The graphic board machine did not produce rolls but instead of a reel at the dry end, there was an inline laminator and converting equipment that would produce a laminated graphic board 3-ply sheet for the gameboard, puzzle and book cover industries. The lining board machine would make the cover stock for the laminated graphic board.
Out of the laminator, the web would go to an inline sheeter, slitter, stacker and into packaging. The technology was unique. As Pelletier says, all that was done offline could now be done inline with one machine.
“It was very efficient,” adds Pelletier but capacity was too high for the needs of the market by the end of 2010 as E-readers grew in popularity.
By this time the mill had been acquired by its present owners, DDJ Capital, and the decision was made to exit the book cover market. The mill returned to offline converting and one of the graphic board machines shut down. Although this graphic board machine is idle, Pelletier says it still has lots of potential. In his interview with PPI, Newark CEO Frank Papa says he does “have plans” for the machines.
Among the work done in the past few years has been the addition of more screening, refining, calendering as well as the installation of a robotic slitting system that can produce a web with a width of 3 in. and up.
The mill has also optimized machine operation, improved its chemistry and done some debottlenecking. this has allowed machine speed to increase to 1,500 ft/min, up from 1,000 ft/min. the table has been modified as has the approach system. Finally, a fine screening system was successfully started up recently.
This machine used to make board with a basis weight range of 60 to 128 lb. now, it ranges between 40 and 98 lb. Capacity is about 106,000 tons/yr.
The changes to the machine meant the operators had to go through a learning curve, one they eagerly accepted. In-house training was done for all processes, from stock prep through machine operation. They were able to take advantage of similar technology in place at other Newark mills.
The work was also done to ensure the new grades would meet new specifications and pass property tests for things such as tensile and ring crush.
The revamped machine has worked to expectation, Pelletier adds. “We’ve had positive feedback on cleanliness and formation.”
The mill’s pulping process is relatively conventional. using a 100% recycled furnish, the raw material goes through a pulper and detrasher into a dump tank. Pelletier says there is a lot of extra capacity in case of an upset at the pulper. Then, the pulp goes through coarse and fine screening.
The majority (70%) of its fiber is baled OCC. Pelletier says the rest is residential mix that comes in loose form. Shrink is a function of the mix the mills uses. With high quality OCC, it is up to 88-89%. He adds that shrink improves with the baled OCC as it is not from single stream collecting. As well, the mill picks its loose fiber suppliers so it chooses the best quality possible.
Newark’s recycled and recovery division handles the supply. “We project our needs and they obtain the contracts to serve us,” Pelletier explains.
The majority of its fiber comes from the new England region but if supply gets tight, Newark will go as far afield as new Jersey and Pennsylvania to secure fiber.
Supply can also be seasonal. However, the mill does have the ability to bale loose fiber and store it so if the market changes or if supplies dwindle, the mill has a ready source.
The mill employs 80 people, a mix of salaried and hourly. The hourly workers include those employed directly by Newark as well as 16 who are contracted, mostly in maintenance, but also in boiler service.
Pelletier says the mill is “fairly closed. We re-use most of our water.” What effluent it does have is discharged to a privately-run treatment facility that is owned by the municipality.
The mill did have co-gen capability but found it was too expensive to generate. It is looking at a CHP plant that would be run by a third party,
The machine upgrade at Fitchburg goes hand in hand with Papa’s philosophy for Newark’s mills, that is, each can produce a full range of products with no more specialization. Pelletier notes that Fitchburg now supplies Newark’s converting plants with high-strength paper grades for tubes and cores.
One difference is that Fitchburg used to be 100% with its sister facilities but now sells about 60% of what it produces on the open market and expects that trend to continue. However, going to market was not that difficult, according to Pelletier. “We just had to make sure we were making the product to the specifications of the customers.”
He adds that this did not mean that there was complacency beforehand. “Our converters had to satisfy outside customers.”
The mill’s main market is new England but it does have some customers in the uS Midwest and Canada. Most deliveries are by truck but an intermodal system is used for more distant deliveries. Pelletier says the mill is re-activating its rail spur.
The change in product matches a change in attitude at the mill. “It now has a can-do attitude,” Pelletier states. There’s been a whole change in culture since the re-organization.”
He adds,” We went from a successful graphic board mill that electronic technology made old but Newark recognized the quality of the assets and made them successful in other markets.”
For the first time in his career at Fitchburg, the mill had a 20-day order backlog this past summer and is running full. Pelletier says this makes the future exciting. “Newark continues to invest capital in the facility so we know we will continue to strive and succeed.”