Automation in the paper mill

Halfway between past and future


At the dawn of automation and at the beginning of a new era. Poised between past and future, we find ourselves in the middle of the countless opportunities that the fourth industrial revolution is offering us. We asked two experts in digital solutions and the paper sector to discuss industrial automation with them.

The often abused term “automation” encompasses a little bit of everything, rightly because everything or almost everything around us is becoming automated. What is defined as industrial automation, however, has blurred boundaries and depends on the direction in which the company decides to develop. In order to understand what to expect in this field, we interviewed two experts, i.e. Marcello Pinto and Francesco Manzo, who are technical sales manager Global Service Solutions of Voith Paper and senior vice president sales Emea di Voith Digital Solutions respectively.

Let’s talk about automation. Do you rightly believe that automation is decisive for the future of the company, and what prospects are unfolding for the paper industry?

Francesco Manzo: «Industrial automation, in its traditional forms of distributed control systems or PLC networks, can be considered as a mature product for some time now, as its early stage dates back to the 1940s together with the first IT systems. The epic of automation thus represents the past of industrial development and the base for the future. All industrial realities, including the paper one, have had to deal with automation if they wanted to remain competitive. Those who have not invested in automation have, with time, been cut out of the field for not being competitive. The next evolution of automation, which is very much debated today and falls within the context of “Industry 4.0”, consists in the possibility to use the potential offered by “Information Technology” (IT) to connect different systems, which exchange a very large quantity of data in order to improve production processes and the management of industrial assets. The development of IT technologies in recent years has provided for the possibility of using data from the sensors, transducers, equipment and systems of the so-called “traditional” or “3.0” automation. Today chips are powerful enough to analyse this data, make correlations between data and process and the behaviour of processes and installations, in order to optimize production and maintenance processes. This is the direction that also the paper industry is currently heading to. Those who won’t follow, are over time bound to lose competitiveness, exactly as happened with the development of automation».

Francesco Manzo, senior vice president sales Emea of Voith Digital Solutions.

What differentiates Italy from the other countries both as regards automation applied within companies and in terms of the design of individual machines and smart application and instruments?

Manzo: «In this early stage of Industry 4.0, the world’s leading paper groups have started dealing with it in order to acquire further productivity margins. Italian paper mills are generally relatively small in size. The main Italian group namely ranks 34th in turnover in the list of world producers; the second Italian group ranks 43rd. The small size makes it difficult to invest in innovation and this will be inevitably reflected in delays compared to international competitors». 

Several bigger companies, i.e. paper producers or suppliers to the paper sector, are currently undergoing a process of internal restructuring and setting up separate sections, offices or departments exclusively devoted to the new digital technologies. How widespread is this phenomenon, and added value will this new layout bring about for the future of the sector?

Marcello Pinto: «Leading companies in this phase represent the avant-garde, be they paper mills or paper mill suppliers. Voith was one of the first companies to set up a division, i.e. Digital Ventures, whose aim is to develop digital solutions for the industry starting from the sectors where it is present, including the paper one. Also some major international paper groups have set up dedicated teams for the development of Industry 4.0, however there’s very few examples of them, because competences and knowledge are needed, that are mostly identified within the suppliers outside the plants».

Marcello Pinto, Global Service Solutions technical sales manager of Voith Paper.

 What future steps will be taken in this direction?

Manzo: «In this stage the role of suppliers of installations and digital solutions is to spur their customers on these topics and make themselves available to check the economic-technical feasibility of advanced solutions to optimize production processes and asset management. These are innovative topics, which require investments and sometimes also a different methodological approach. Therefore, the difference is made by the size of the customer, rather than the area where he is located. In Europe, Voith actively collaborates with customers who are interested in adopting technologies that make reference to Industry 4.0. To identify areas of collaboration and which available technologies and solutions can provide an immediate competitive edge to the company concerned, Voith recommends to carry out a “Digital Exploratory Workshop”, i.a. a brainstorming exercise involving the top managers of the customer, with the aim of identifying challenges and responses, with solutions based on digital technologies».

Industry 4.0, automation and digitalization are paving the way to a new thread, i.e. the development of cloud services and, consequently, topics that are both fundamental and delicate, like cyber-security and data and privacy protection. How are the companies in the paper industry dealing with this issue?

Pinto: «Industry 4.0 is based on the possibility to connect systems. This relation can be extended beyond the perimeter of a paper mill and shared with suppliers of installations. Modern installations are very complex and it would not be economical for paper mills to have all the necessary competences to manage and maintain their assets. Sharing meaningful parameters with suppliers helps create synergies that reduce the TCO (Total Cost for the Ownership), because they reduce specific maintenance costs by abandoning the so-called “time-based” maintenance and adopting the “condition-based” maintenance in broader sense, thereby also improving the reliability of installations. Voith has developed complete packages for asset management, which include remote monitoring of the critical functions of machinery, the provision of technical services and parts at the right time, a hotline to be timely in solving problems and faults, and dedicated training for users. Equally important is also the possibility, thanks to broad know-how, to suggest technological improvements to optimize the productive process during its entire life cycle. As regards cyber-security and privacy, Voith has a dedicated division to deal with these issues, which brings about solutions with very high levels of security. It is, however, extremely flexible in the use of both the “cloud”, and the “fog”, whereby with the latter solution foresees data physically remain at the customer’s. Once customers no longer have reservations on the issue of data security and ownership, we expect the industry to opt for cloud solutions, which are cheaper and more efficient».

Who are the target customers for these advanced solutions?

Manzo: «This type of applications brings about important competitive advantages, e.g. increase of the company Overall Efficiency, TCO reduction, etc., therefore target customers include all those who do not want to renounce a competitive edge».

 Italy dealing with I4.0

In Italy automation has been partly stimulated by the economic plan Piano Impresa 4.0, originally termed Industria 4.0, which led and supported Italian companies, SMEs and big firms alike, to invest in the automation of their facilities. The plan was downsized with the 2019 Budget Law. «The resources of Piano Impresa 4.0have been mainly used to modernize automation systems. This was absolutely necessary», explains Marcello Pinto. This is certainly the case, but it is not enough, that is why we are asking him what, in his opinion, still needs to be done now. «The highest level, whose aim is to optimize processes and asset management, i.e. predictive maintenance, the optimizing warehouses, e-commerce, etc., still deserves attention and further investments. For this reason it is necessary to continue supporting the Italian industry in this direction».