Tissue, objective competitiveness


How to face a competitive and dynamic market? By rationalising the production cycle and making it efficient. Improvements are already possible and, for the most part, are at low or no cost. Essential, however, is to start from the basics. This is how tomorrow’s tissue is built

In the light of the challenges that will lead towards 2030 – challenges that are numerous and demanding – tissue companies must strive to remain competitive. Speaking at Miac 2023, Eduardo De Almeida, manager of Afry, a consulting company that also works in the paper industry, started by examining what is happening to the tissue market globally and, above all, in Europe.

Market Overview

Tissue products in the old continent are now part of consumers’ everyday choices. In fact, their consumption, according to Afry’s data and projections for the coming years, shows an increase almost everywhere in the world. Specifically, Europe shows an annual increase of +1.6%. “This slight increase in consumption is mainly due to the introduction of new products and changes in consumer preferences and choices,” says De Almeida, “but in general a large part of the production capacity comes from European countries, with 36% of the global additional capacity” (Figure 1). This provenance has a particular impact on Italy, especially since our country has a production surplus that it exports to the continent and, at the moment, “is the main net exporter in Europe. However, a significant amount of new capacity is also being developed in the Middle East”. However, the data also says something else, “the UK, which is one of the largest importers of European paper, is planning to increase its capacity and can be expected to decrease its share of its settings in the future. Europe’s small 1.6 per cent growth will therefore be enough to compensate for the UK’s increased capacity, but in general, companies in the sector will be affected by these changes.”

If one then looks at the entire industry chain, one can see how tissue producers are under pressure from both suppliers and consumers, both pushing for lower prices: paper companies therefore have to further optimise their profits to maintain margins and value.

On the pulp side, tissue producers are becoming more important to suppliers of virgin raw material and this, De Almeida points out, means better buying power for tissue mills. Also on the customer side, there is a downgrading of private label products and a strong presence of everyday tissue products in supermarkets, and this creates additional pressure on the sector. So “while there has been a reduction in volumes, there has also been an increase in prices.”

The importance of remaining flexible

In this overview explaining the market situation in the industry, one wonders how and what tissue companies should do to remain competitive. First of all, “you have to try not to lose flexibility in the process,” continues Afry’s manager, “because there are strong fluctuations in quality and companies should remain flexible. Cost control is essential ‘especially now that there is so much focus on decarbonization”. And finally, it is important that ‘every company works to try to maintain its position in the market and avoid declassification’.

On this last point, De Almeida brings the example of a study carried out by their office in Spain to verify the situation of tissue companies in terms of process control. They analysed the toilet paper marketed by some of the leading manufacturers in Spain and Portugal – buying products directly from supermarkets and covering, for each, a minimum of three production batches – and verified that there was a strong variability in the basis weight of tissue from the different brands; a variability between 1 and 4%. This excessive variability in weight, highlighted by the study, is a symptom of incorrect product handling. This, the manager emphasises, can expose the manufacturing company to the risk of an economic disadvantage. Not only that, “weight variability is a key indicator of poor process control, showing how there are many aspects in the process itself that do not work and should be reviewed”.

However, this variability factor is only the tip of the iceberg, “if a company cannot control the weight of the product it sells, it means that there are obviously many aspects it does not control”. Some of these have a direct impact on the efficiency of the plant, such as sheet breakage problems and quality variability, others are related to different aspects, such as communication and personnel problems, or poor standardisation or excessive reactivity in terms of maintenance leading to higher costs.

Each of these elements can also have a significant impact on costs and can lead to loss of customers and, ultimately, a negative impact on reputation.

Managing variability

Therefore, to achieve excellent control of the basis weight of tissue in the papermaking process, it is necessary to understand that its variability stems from a number of factors. Knowing these factors will enable paper mills to understand where to optimise their processes.

De Almeida took as an example a case where the variability of the product weight was 6% and verified how it could be easily reduced to a figure of 2.3%. “I analysed the various types of variability: in particular, but the greatest incidence – which therefore has an effect on the product – is the inherent variability of the paper machine, both in the transverse and longitudinal directions. And again, a very significant share is determined by the setpoints set by the different operators”. The human factor is crucial, Afry’s manager emphasises. “The machine operator should maintain constant setpoints and machine settings”.

Other factors are the laboratory, quality control system (QCS) and processing. Each of these variables affects the final product differently, but all can be optimised to determine a better process yield (Figure 2).

Continuous improvement

The way to a more rational and efficient production cycle is through continuous improvement and maintenance of the results achieved over time. “We often talk about digital solutions without knowing what the basics of quality management are,” says De Almeida. “It is essential to try to put in place a proper quality management and improvement system, thus starting with the basics. Digital systems can help but only if the quality systems were already working; it is important not to confuse the support of digital with the end goal. Digitalisation is not the end goal, but the means to achieve it”.

Not only that, to achieve an increase in productivity and maintain the improvements in the long run, says De Almeida, “you need to have a system that supports process improvement, so that all actions go in the right direction and without the need to make any kind of investment”. Those suggested, he says, “are all low-investment or even zero-investment activities”. However, in order to achieve such improvements, it is essential for a paper mill to set itself clear goals and set itself clear standards to implement projects that are feasible.

Ultimately, says De Almeida, “the coming years will be years of fierce competition in the tissue business and, specifically, in Italy for exports and increased capacity in the UK. Process efficiency will therefore be a key element in continuing to create value, and continuous improvement will be the way to achieve this”.