Sappi Alfeld PM 2: the task ahead

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Sappi Alfeld PM 2: the task ahead

June 02, 2014 - 08:40

PM 2 - the largest capacity specialty machine in the industry

BRUSSELS, June 1, 2014 (PPI Magazine) - The Sappi Alfeld Mill near Hannover in Germany has been making paper since the 1700s. Over the last 80 years it has carved out something of a solid reputation in the field of bespoke, specialty papers, which has created a perfect platform for growth in the uncertain world of paper production. Building on this, Sappi recently took on an ambitious project to convert its one remaining graphic paper machine at Alfeld, PM 2, into what is probably the largest, most innovative, automated and versatile specialty paper machine on the planet, with a capacity of 135,000 tonnes/yr. The inauguration of PM 2 was held in March.

Sappi is one of the world's largest producers coated graphic papers, in fact it can be considered as being one of the real innovators in high quality grades, with printers and end users worldwide singing praises about the runnability and quality of its products. But unfortunately - and no matter how good those products are - the introduction of the iPad, the Samsung Galaxy, the Kindle, and a raft of other electronic media devices have put a large dent in graphic paper demand. Therefore Sappi has found itself right at the centre of a significant downturn of one its main product bases.

And the fact is, no matter how optimistic we in this industry are about the future of graphic papers, the reality strikes home when the orders diminish and the machines go idle. Even worse is the realisation that those orders are not coming back. This is when senior management at companies really earn their money; they need to bite on the realism bullet, make quick, crucial decisions and all, hopefully, well ahead of that daunting downward curve.

At this crucial crossroads, Sappi could easily have introduced the unimaginative management philosophy of cut, cut and cut some more. However in the case of Sappi Fine Paper Europe's Alfeld mill, a much bolder approach was taken; to significantly expand into the lucrative market for specialty papers by converting its largest of five paper machines, PM 2, from a graphic papers into a specialities machine.

Specialities papers are nothing new for Alfeld, the mill has been carving a niche for some decades now in dedicated products, in fact its four existing machines have earned Sappi something of a reputation for delivering top quality, bespoke products to discerning, demanding, packaging buyers. Berry Wiersum, CEO of Sappi Fine Paper Europe says: "The existing PM 2 at Alfeld was losing us a lot of money and a graphic papers machine sitting in the middle of four other paper machines which were more than paying their way in specialities made no sense at all and played havoc with our costings at the mill.

"Our existing specialty papers customers were telling us that they liked the idea of a "big" machine," continues Wiersum, "One that could cope with larger orders, and one that could ease the transition from using lots of plastic to using lots of paper instead - a growing trend in Europe."

First, make sure you have a market

It sounds like it was an easy decision to make, but at that time in early 2011, the Eurozone was going through something of a financial crisis, and all industries were being affected by the downturn. The feasibility of making the conversion, including the disruption to existing production, as well as the cost - around Euro 61 million - all combined to make the decision an even tougher one. And of course, would there be a market for all this specialty paper once the conversion was made? After all an increase in capacity of 135,000 tonnes of specialty papers is no small amount, particularly when the global total amount of specialty papers only amounts to around 3 million tonnes/yr.

Rosemarie Asquino, Sappi Fine Paper Europe's sales and marketing director for specialities, is right at the sharp end of making sure the project results in an increase to the order books, she says: "We are seeing an increasing attitude among our customers, including the big brand owners, that paper is definitely being seen as preferable to other, less renewable substrates, particularly in packaging. And at Alfeld, most of our specialty papers are for packaging".

The mill produces five main specialty product groups; flexible packaging applications, which includes cigarette innerliners, yogurt lids, sachets, pouches, wrappers and tea envelopes; one sided coated papers for label applications; premium, top of the range SBS boards for luxury goods for example perfumes, champagne and chocolate packaging; high white coated topliner for the lamination of corrugated board; and silicone base papers as carrier for self adhesive films, plotter films and pre-pregs.

Producing these specialty papers for packaging is a serious business in terms of product quality and customer care - in fact big brand owners are now verging on the paranoia when it comes to all ingredients that go into products, and that includes the packaging they come in. Asquino explains: "Most of our specialty products are for consumer packaging, for instance the biggest sector we are in is one sided coated papers. These are used for applications such as the sleeve that goes around yoghurt pots, and also the lids. The lids are very specialised as they are typically a compound of metallised polyester and paper. This means printability has to be perfect on one side, and on the other it must have maximum properties for adhesion. Moreover, when the lid is stuck to the pot, it must be flexible, so the lid does not detach from the pot. This is just one example of thousands of different specialities we are involved in."

Asquino says that one of the most exciting areas of specialities is in the area of barriers. Historically it has been impossible for paper producers to enter markets dominated by plastic film because of cost. "One of the biggest challenges we have seen is in the developments of barriers for application on our papers, which offers up a whole host of new opportunities. After a lot of research and development, we now have the agents available that allow us to reduce the porosity of paper which enables us to use much less of the expensive chemicals needed, thereby enabling us to compete with film applications. This is going to be something really big in the industry, and we are right at the forefront of developing these applications."

This has become a really serious business, and Sappi has a team of scientists in Alfeld working hands on with barriers and other packaging applications, as well as another team in Maastricht. Both teams work closely with customers to ensure every parameter is taken into account. Asquino continues: "We have a lot of different trials going on, as it is paramount for the customer that each ‘recipe' for specialty papers is going to perform when printing, converting, and then of course on the shelves. When producing the bespoke, tailor made paper, we cannot just swap machines, for instance put a certain recipe on the new PM 2. Each machine has a fingerprint, and each of those products that come off that machine has to be certified, a process that can take anything from a month to two years."

Clearly, the specialities business is no "run of the mill" activity to be engaged in.

Let Project Leopard commence!

The history of the idea for what was to become known at Sappi as Project Leopard actually started at the Alfeld mill itself. The name came from an action photo of a Leopard leaping from one rock to another on one of Sappi's customer calendars - a perfect illustration of the plan for PM 2.

One of those people instrumental in the idea of the transformation of PM 2 is director at the Alfeld mill, Dr Stephan Karrer. "We had an unusual situation at Alfeld, four specialty machines that were doing really well in a growing market, and one graphic machine that was struggling in a declining market. The four specialty machines were running 24/7, 365 days a year, and the graphic paper machine was subject to commercial standstills due to lack of orders. We had to do something.

"We thought about having a minor rebuild, and tackling specialities that way around," continues Karrer, "But specialities is our business, and we were not convinced we could deliver the quality, particularly at the speed of PM 2, which is much faster than a "normal" specialty machine. Then we came up with the bold plan of going the whole way and doing a complete rebuild."

The concept for the new PM 2 was for a world-class, prototype specialty machine with a width of 4,650 mm that could handle intricate grades from a basis weight of 50-180 g/m² and run at a production speed of 1,200 m/min. This would mean that production would leap from the five or six tonnes per hour norm for a specialty machine to 20 tonnes per hour. The machine would also have to cope with numerous, complex grade changes.

"With 70 or 80 years knowledge and experience of specialities production at Alfeld, we knew exactly what we were looking for in a prototype machine," says Karrer. "It is a business where over time you learn a lot, the grades, the recipes, and the techniques are all elements that amount to bespoke orders. We have also had the technology here for a long time, particularly in reference to Yankees, coaters and calenders. With that knowledge, we knew exactly what we wanted and needed from the supplier of this machine rebuild."

It was a clear plan from the start that PM 2 was going to become a star paper machine in the world of specialities.

In May 2011, the Alfeld team including Karrer and Asquino, specialities marketing director presented to Sappi's European management team in Brussels, the ambitious plan to rebuild PM 2 into what Karrer described as "something fantastic that will increase our specialities by 135,000 tonnes/yr".

Karrer describes the management team at the presentation as going completely silent after the ambitious plan for PM 2 was put forward, which was then broken by CEO Wiersum, uttering "Wow!"

Another 14 months later, in July 2012, and after a lot of serious studies, discussions and site visits, Project Leopard commenced, and Valmet was appointed as the main supplier for the project. And just like the leopard, the project team on all sides had to leap into action as there were customer deadlines to take into account, and of course the weather; the equipment order included a 6.4 diameter MG cylinder (Yankee) which had to come by road from Karlstad in Sweden.

"We got the approval, and then we had to go straight to work with the civil works, as we only had 12 months to complete the project." adds Karrer. "It was essential we did all of the work and transportation before the winter as the Yankee was coming from Sweden and we could not open the roof of the mill in the winter. And even more important than that was the fact that in the specialty business, all customer contracts for the following year come in the autumn, so we had to plan to come on stream to make sure we could fulfil those orders".

PM 2: A Challenging Concept

Valmet's scope of supply was a complex and all-encompassing one; the new PM 2 has a completely new head box with dilution circulation, forming, press and dryer sections rebuilt. One of the essential ingredients in the rebuild is a brand new solid casting 6.4 m diameter Yankee cylinder with hood. The machine also has a completely new coating section with air dryers plus two ValCoat coating stations, a multinip calender rebuild with existing Nipco rolls, a reel rebuild and broke collection. The automation supplied also included a DNA quality control system and machine control PCS7.

Mauri Laurikainen, Valmet's senior paper technology manager for paper mills says of the PM 2 project: "From the beginning when the concept was first presented, it was clear this was going to be an unusual one - a totally online solution with finished products coming off the end of the machine. Added, interesting challenges are the wide basis weight range and the differing specialty grades, at the same time being produced on a wide machine at speed. The Yankee cylinder of course was an absolute must to obtain the base paper surface quality.

"We trialled many of the grades at our pilot plants in Finland making sure that the coatings and calendering demands would work across the grades needed," continues Laurikainen. "There is no doubt that the Sappi Alfeld mill was a demanding customer for this project, but they knew what they wanted and they always came at us with their ideas in an enthusiastic but cooperative fashion."

A carnival atmosphere

Sappi Fine Paper Europe has its own dedicated project team for any projects over its 10 mills that have a worth of over $2.5 million. Wim Devens, the company's manager of central technology and engineering was Project Leopard's leader from the Sappi side, he says: "We went through the whole process with the main suppliers, and in the end it came out that Valmet had the experience and know-how in specialities, as well as the facilities for the casting of the Yankee cylinder. There was also a gut feeling among the team at Sappi that Valmet was the right choice of supplier."

With the order in place, it was then left to Devens and the project team, the mill team, and the suppliers - which was all overseen by a steering committee made up of the senior management of both Sappi and Valmet - to ensure the deadline for timing was met, as well as the guarantees of quality. But first, there was transportation of the massive Yankee cylinder to arrange. Devens explains: "The Yankee cylinder at 6.4 m diameter, and weighing 135 tonnes comes under the bracket of "unusual load", and we really had an interesting journey with it. The transportation was all arranged by Valmet, as this is the sort of thing they do a lot of, so they took total control."

The journey itself from Sweden to Germany by boat and barge was not so much of a problem, but the road trip from the river port to the mill was full of challenges, says Devens: "It took over 100 local authority approvals to allow the Yankee to pass through towns and villages and over bridges to the mill. Street lighting had to be dismantled, high voltage cables lifted and over 120 trees had to have branches sawn off - 10 trees had to come down completely.

"The truck itself had 18 axels some of which had to be removed so that the trailer could get around tight bends and corners, bridges either had to be reinforced on the way, or avoided altogether by building a new road over farmers' land."

When the Yankee finally arrived in Alfeld, it was to something of a carnival atmosphere as this was not only one of the most exciting projects the town of Alfeld had seen for some time, but it was also the biggest engineering project going on in the whole of Germany which was being hit by the economic turndown. Devens said, "When the Yankee arrived, it was as if the whole county had turned out to watch, people were out on the streets, and houses alongside the route were hosting barbecues and parties. We had a small viewing area in the woodyard, and on the first weekend something like 1500 visitors came to see the huge Yankee."

The race is on

On August 30, 2013, the ‘old' PM 2 was shut down and the serious race to the finish began, there were only 39 days available for the installation of the Yankee and the rebuild.

To hoist the Yankee into the PM 2 housing, one of Europe's biggest cranes was hired, a 1,350-tonne monster that needed 16 trucks to get it to Alfeld and two weeks to erect. The crane had to have its own foundations with a weight level of 70 tonnes per square meter.

"We had to produce everything that customers might order while the rebuild was going on, so production was at 100% before the rebuild started," says Devens. "There were issues with space during the rebuild, as PM 2 was in a narrow area and we somehow had to get the old equipment out and the new in, at the same time something like 300 engineers were trying to do their work".

Valmet gave the assurance that the project would take 39 days, and on October 12, 2013, exactly according to plan, there was stock on the wire. "We couldn't quite believe it," says Devens. "It just seemed there was chaos, and people working away everywhere, then suddenly there it was, stock on the wire. Valmet is a superb company, they deliver superb equipment, but they do the work quietly and you don't get a real impression of progress until there it is, a machine running with stock on the wire!"

On October 17, and again absolutely according to plan, Alfeld produced the first two saleable jumbo reels. "It was part of the agreement with Valmet that we had to have two jumbo reels full of saleable paper to go out to our specialty customers. Saleable paper in the world of specialities means a different thing to the one of graphic papers, as the paper has to be specially certified. Again, we were very pleased with how progress was being made."

On PPI's recent visit to Alfeld, more progress had been made and now PM 2 can produce all of the top quality grades required for its demanding, discerning customers to its own quality benchmark Q1. So what is next? Devens says: "Well, the work doesn't end for us until the end of July. We are now in the optimization stage, and we are ironing out the problems that go with that. This machine has quite a task ahead of it, we are expecting it to do all grades from 50 to 180 g/m² with calendar, without calendar, with coater, without coater, one side, two sides, all those different parameters, and all at high speed. It is a high expectation we have."

Devens concludes: "We are really happy all in all with how it has gone and we have had splendid support from Valmet whenever we have needed it during the installation and start up phase."

"Biggest experience of my life"

Perhaps the most important person to finally ask about the success of the PM 2 project is mill director, Dr Stephan Karrer who originally came up with the concept: "Apart from the birth of my two children, this project really has been the biggest experience of my life. The last few months we have been optimising the start-up and have been tiring for everybody, but it makes me so proud that the whole PM 2 team are still so delighted to be working on what is going to be such a remarkable machine when it is fully up to speed."

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