23 jul 2020
Evan Schwartz: expert opinion on Fibre Recycling
The paper and forest-products industry is steadily growing and transforming, as the types of products demanded across the globe continue to evolve. As we drive towards a circular economy, the industry has to invest more in recycling. Today, this means applying cutting-edge technology to a complex process.
A changing global picture
The market for recovered fibre has been going through a bumpy time. For many years, the Far East was a hungry market for waste paper from the US, Europe and Australia, but this has changed. China and other Asian countries have tightened their import specifications, refusing to accept levels of contamination in excess of these.
This is challenging waste companies and fibre recyclers around the world to improve their quality control systems. At the same time, digitalisation in manufacturing is also creating the exciting opportunity for owners to reduce the costs of their recycled paper and board production.
While demand for graphic papers has begun to decline, there has been a substantial uptick in demand for sustainable fibre-based packaging. This has resulted in paper-products companies reconfiguring their mills to rebalance capacity to fit this shift towards environmentally-friendly products. It’s a challenge to do this consistently. All recycling companies, whether they are processing papers and magazines (PAMs), old corrugated cardboard (OCC), mixed papers or other fibre-based packaging, know they need to achieve a consistent end product from unpredictable inputs.
Paper and cardboard producers
One of the unique characteristics of the paper recycling industry is that many of the companies come from a forestry background, with a well-defined method for managing the supply of source material for their paper mills, owning forests or working closely with forest owners. In the case of the US, the availability of timber is one of the reasons many big paper companies are relatively new entrants to the recycling industry.
Historically, most paper producers are used to this consistent input, owning the source material. So, for a recycled paper mill, they only want paper as input but find that it comes with metal, plastic and a host of other materials. In many cases, particularly the US and to a lesser extent the UK, paper mills have acquired Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) in order to own the source material, but this requires a different mindset and the additional challenge of handling other types of material. Even the paper recycling mills that don’t own MRFs will run pre-sort lines and have to manage other materials as well.
Whether or not a fibre reprocessor owns a MRF, there is still a need to go outside the operation to source input material. While paper companies know logistics, going out to get secondary fibre means building new muscles and specialist processes. Adding to the complexity is the documentation that accompanies recycling. Compared to timber, bales of recovered fibre need more detailed tracking.
Today, paper companies have to manage the contaminants, either from the mill or MRF as efficiently as possible, with systems for handling other recyclates that result from the sorting process, such as plastic, metals, glass. Where possible, developing a system that can get value from these streams, can play a role in offsetting the cost of the principal feedstock. However, this can be a complex process managing an inflow and outflow of different prices and costs, logistics and storage. To succeed, managers need systems to capture the whole picture, so all parts are working in sync.
Knowing how much inventory there is and a demand plan for the production line also means that purchasing managers are in a better position to play the market, knowing when they can take advantage of lower prices for recovered fibre, hedge bets for future months and even out the cost profile for the business.
Getting enough material into the mill is only half the battle; the challenge is also to make sure the quality is there. It’s not efficient to have someone checking every load, the key is good inspection so material from good vendors doesn’t need the same level of checks as the ones that are more prone to supply loads with contamination. To educate the supplier, to tell them what the problem is with the material, as well as to set the right price for what is being delivered,
grading is essential to ensure that a mill isn’t paying for water or contamination. It throws off the inventory numbers, something you can’t afford when you’re running a ‘just-in-time’ process. It means purchasing managers also have a better idea of what they are going to get from each supplier. A solid quality feedback loop can make a big difference to the bottom line, so investing in a system that separates good from bad is key.
Production management vs Manufacturing execution system
Making paper and cardboard is an art form. Most people don’t appreciate that there is a recipe, with careful cooking and sampling all the way through the process, to get a specific product out the other end.
Having a manufacturing execution system that is aware of feedstock inventory and anticipates the resulting output inventory, creating sales slots for the sales team to go out to market in advance, is a big win.
If demand shifts and some of the sales inventory isn’t selling, then a system that can backhaul this onto the production line for a different product line that is selling can make a big difference to the bottom line. For paper mills, having the agility to course correct, whether it's because the manufacturing and inputs have changed, or the type of products that are selling have changed, is paramount.
A major differentiator of the product and service AMCS offers is the ability to bring amazing service to the customer. The cloud-software is configurable according to each customer’s own KPIs and process.
While this will be similar for most mills making recycling paper and card products, each will have its own unique approach. We’ve built software that allows each customer to configure a process tuned to their individual requirement, while harnessing our best-in-class enterprise planning (ERP) software and the efficiencies it can bring across the business.
Identifying and managing contamination is an essential requirement for the production system in fibre recycling. Our technology is speeding up the decision-making around this.
In the US, where most paper mills own MRFs to ensure their own supply of input fibre, it’s possible to have position static cameras to identify contamination in the recyclables. AMCS is doing this using computer vision and machine learning through Microsoft’s Azure Artificial Intelligence.
We’re investing in 5G, which is going to allow us to do this in a wider range of settings, particularly on a tipping arm or mobile, at the point of collection. It’s not possible to warehouse that intelligence on a truck, but 5G is going to open the bandwidth to instantly leverage AI in the cloud, process the imaging and return a result quickly.
Migrating to AMCS software
Onboarding starts with getting to know the customer, putting each person in front of the software is the last step. Our services team works through existing processes and their pain points, such as the manual inputting spreadsheets, or double data entry into two systems. We work through the primary business flows and configure our purpose-built ERP software to fit this.
When the system goes live, we provide hands-on support as people at the mill get used to it and see the results. It’s not long before the customer is telling us about their own customisation and how it’s transformed what they can do.
The fundamentals of recycling fibre-based products are the same wherever you are, but there are also differences in how the industry evolves in different territories. Disposing of waste is more costly in Europe, which impacts how the recycling market tackles contamination and collects material.
AMCS brings a global perspective to the software solution. It means that we are able to incorporate industry innovations that are happening in one part of the world to the software configuration for other regions. A great example is how the US is behind Europe when it comes to RFID tagging tracking on containers. So we are able to make offerings and introduce these mature innovations in other parts of the world – it may be new in the US, but it’s been adopted in EMEA for many years.
AMCS’ position as a global market leader in the space really brings a diverse view and allows us to have conversations at a global scale that most of the other software packages do not bring to the table.