Digitalisation is nothing new at pulp mills

30.10.2018
Matti Toivonen

​Digitalisation, big data, the IoT, Industry 4.0, AI, blockchains, VR and AR. This is what modern companies are made of. Digitalisation is everywhere – even at pulp mills.  It is progressing in leaps and bounds, and those not keeping up with its development are so last season! The hype is gaining even more momentum.

The reality is that digitalisation is already here. Modern mills have been automated and digital for years. Process control already utilises blockchains and machine learning. Maintenance takes advantage of mobile apps already. And there’s much more.

Matti Toivonen

Metsä Group’s bioproduct mill in Äänekoski is leading the way on many fronts – including digitalisation. The best example of this is the fully automated system for storing bales of pulp and loading them onto trains. Pulp units move from production to the distribution centre on automated conveyors. In the distribution centre, two robotic lifts transfer the pulp to storage racks and then onto trains. When loading pulp units onto a train, a fully automated crane with machine vision is around three times faster than the traditional solution: a forklift operated by a driver. In addition, the units remain in much better condition.

Excellent availability is key at a pulp mill in many respects. High availability usually leads to a good production rate, high quality, good environmental performance and cost-efficiency. To achieve excellent availability, equipment failures must be predicted as accurately as possible. Traditional methods usually ensure a relatively good level of availability, but making those final few steps towards excellence require more than just traditional preventive maintenance. In this area, digitalisation has already created many new opportunities, and many more are still to come. Artificial intelligence is quicker than the human mind and it doesn’t get tired, and machine learning makes it possible to take prediction to a new level.

At the bioproduct mill, data is being collected from thousands of devices around the clock. Data-analysing software has already predicted many faults in devices. When we get this information, we replace or repair the device, and production has been able to continue without breaks. In the traditional model, the device would have broken down in the middle of the night at the weekend. In the worst case, production would have stopped until we had located an expert and the necessary spare parts.

In the future, digitalisation will be an ever more significant part of our daily lives, giving us opportunities that we cannot even imagine yet. The coming years and generations will show the direction of development. Instead of taking leaps, I believe in taking controlled steps towards goals that really matter. Digitalisation just for the sake of it is futile. However, some of the hype is true: the opportunities that digitalisation offers may be much broader than we can currently grasp.

Writer Matti Toivonen, Process Owner, Technology Development at Metsä Fibre, believes in digitalisation – but not blindly.

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