The Evolution of Innovation in the Paper Industry

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Martin Fairbank
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In a recent blog post, I discussed the importance of using the scientific method in evaluating new products. My historical reference to the origins of the term “snake oil” provoked some interesting reactions, but it was a device to attract the attention of readers, and apparently it worked!

As a follow-up, let’s look at how the relationship between the paper industry and its chemical suppliers has evolved since the late 20th century to become a strong symbiotic relationship that is important for continued innovation and development in the industry, using the example of newsprint.

To set the scene, newsprint in the early 1980s was made with 70 to 100% mechanical pulp (chemical or semi-chemical pulps making up the rest of the furnish), and newspapers were mostly printed by letterpress or coldset offset printing, with very little use of colour. Only a few newsprint mills used any chemical additives in the furnish. Many machines were Fourdriniers, some were twin wire, and gap formers were relatively new and rare.

With the increased use of colour printing in newsprint, and the emergence of the heatset offset process with its stickier inks, quality demands on newsprint increased. It became important to have both sides of the newsprint of equal surface quality. This was difficult on a Fourdrinier machine because the top side tended to collect all the loose fibres that ended up as lint on the printing blankets of offset presses, especially in colour printing, where the sheet experienced four or more printing nips.

Chemical suppliers at that time had plenty of solutions developed for the fine paper industry, which required addition of chemical products to aid in the retention of fillers in the sheet. Chemical pulp fibres are relatively long and easy to retain. It’s understandable that some of the first trials in the newsprint industry using these same retention aids did not perform well, since mechanical pulp is much different, containing much shorter fibres with a significantly higher surface area, plus dissolved and colloidal material (“anionic trash”) that complicates wet end chemistry. Since the 1940s, many newsprint mills, especially southern US mills with a pine furnish, had used “papermaker’s alum”, aluminum sulfate, to take care of pitch and anionic trash, and this also worked as a crude retention aid, but its use was more of an art than a science – some papermakers believed the solution to any wet end chemistry problem was “add more alum”!

It took a few years for newsprint producers to adopt and optimize polymeric retention aid systems.  Some of the barriers that had to be recognized and addressed were:

  • Hierarchical management systems in papermills, with permission for trials given grudgingly
  • Incentives for quantity of paper produced, not for improved quality
  • Poor planning, monitoring and follow-up of trials
  • Insufficient time allowed for trials; the first addition of a retention aid tends to load the sheet with darker, poorly bonded fines, lowering brightness
  • Poor understanding of the chemistry involved
  • Difficulty of translating lab experiments into successful mill trials
  • Extra labour and lab analysis required to monitor trials, and a slow feedback loop of lab results
  • Poor quality of temporary make-down equipment for polymers, resulting in “fish eyes” (undispersed polymer) in the diluted polymer

Since that time, the situation has improved remarkably, thanks to not only technology evolution but also better training.

Evolutions in technology over the last thirty years include better, more-tailored chemistry solutions and better equipment (some of this developed by chemical suppliers). The use of data historians, automated measurements and control loops has enabled instant feedback, much better control and a better understanding of process dynamics.

In terms of training, many of the tools used for training in root cause problem-solving, lean manufacturing, and change management have their basis in the scientific method. Under the old mentality, we used to joke that a papermaker’s problem-solving technique was to find the last variable that changed, and reverse it. 

All of this has been achieved with the help of a flourishing relationship with the industry’s suppliers that developed over time. Newsprint producers realized what was possible with better management of their system chemistry (including improved quality, less downtime and less variability), and suppliers invested in providing dedicated technical service to paper mills and went to work in their research and development labs to develop tailored solutions.

The same can be said of the many other suppliers to the industry, including suppliers of paper machines and pulping equipment, maintenance, repair and operating supplies (MRO), sensors, and instrumentation, to name a few. The example we’ve explored is chemicals used for newsprint, but the same can be said of almost any process or product in the industry – suppliers have listened to the industry and helped them to develop innovative solutions that lead to improved productivity, quality and profitability.

Martin Fairbank, Ph.D. Martin Fairbank has worked in the forest products industry for 31 years,
including many years for a pulp and paper producer and two years with
Natural Resources Canada. With a Ph.D. in chemistry and experience in
process improvement, product development, energy management and lean
manufacturing, Martin currently works as an independent consultant,
based in Montreal. He is also an author, having recently published
Resolute Roots, a history of Resolute Forest Products and its
predecessors over the last 200 years.

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Martin Fairbank Consulting

Industry Experience

  • Pulp and Paper Technology
  • Materials Recycling
  • Biorefinery Development
  • Manufacturing
  • Government Subsidy Programs


  • Technical Writing
    . White Papers
    . Grant Applications
    . Explain technical concepts
  • Scientific Editing
    . Review of articles for publication
  • Project Assessment
    . Evaluation of Technologies
    . Project evaluation for funding agencies
  • Pulp & Paper
    . Conventional and emerging technologies