ST Tissue Launches PM 5 Conversion to Tissue at Virginia Mill

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Second tissue machine that previously made fine papers at Franklin builds on success of PM 6 conversion in 2013, boosting mill’s tissue production capacity for AfH markets to 120,000 tpy

KEN PATRICK

A little more than four years ago, in February 2013, ST Tissue brought online one of the widest, if not the widest, and most cost-effective tissue machines in the Western Hemisphere, and possibly the world, at International Paper Co.’s idled fine paper mill in Franklin, VA, USA.

PM 6 formerly produced uncoated free sheet (UFS) at the Franklin mill, as did two other fine paper machines there—PM 5 and PM 4. ST Tissue had purchased both PM 6 and PM 5 from IP, as well as the mill’s fiber recycling plant (FRP) and other supporting equipment and systems, with the vision of converting both machines to tissue production. PM 4 was retained by IP and converted to production of fluff pulp, starting up just before ST Tissue started up PM 6.

A detailed feature report on conversion of the 310-in.-wide PM 6 to semi-creped tissue production ran in the 2013 Fall/Winter issue of Tissue360omagazine.

Building on the success of PM 6 during the past four years, ST Tissue has now advanced its plan of converting PM 5 to a tissue machine and has launched a $35 million expansion project that includes associated upgrade/expansion of the FRP as well as addition of a new hard-wound towel conversion line at the complex. The project is already well underway, with startup of the rebuilt PM 5 scheduled for sometime in December, before the end of this year.

ST Tissue operations at Franklin are owned and operated by TAK Investments of Gaithersburg, MD, headed by entre-preneur businessman Sharad Tak. The group also owns the ST Paper mill in Oconto Falls, WI, which it acquired in 2007. The Oconto Falls mill also uses recycled fiber to produce some 70,000 tpy of tissue parent rolls for the AfH market. It oper-ates two tissue machines and has nearly 100 employees.

Current operations at the Franklin mill employ approximately 85 people. When the PM 5 project comes online later this year, it will employ another 50 full-time employees, raising the total employee count at the complex to around 135.

To gather more information about the PM 5 expansion project at Franklin, Tissue360o magazine recently met with three of the mill’s management staff, including VP Sahil Tak; Chris McGrath, FRP process area leader; and D. Kasavaraman, plant engineer. The highlights of these discussions are included here.

FORMULA FOR SUCCESS

Sahil Tak, VP of ST Tissue.

The rapid success at ST Tissue began with the purchase of the Oconto Falls mill in 2007, during what has been de-scribed as “troubled times” for the mill. The ST group invested in the mill and the people of Northeastern Wisconsin and turned the facility around by 2009, while growing its employee base to some 100 full-time employees today.

Currently, the Oconto Falls mill operates two high speed tissue machines, a recycled fiber plant, and its own wastewater treatment facility. It produces tissue parent rolls for conversion to mainly bleached bath tissue, along with some napkin and towel grades. The mill has the capability to use 100 percent recycled wastepaper and virgin fiber.

ST Tissue acquired its Franklin operations in 2012 from IP after the fine paper mill shut down in 2009. After about 10 months of construction, it started up the PM 6 tissue machine, producing parent rolls for towel and napkin grades, and later this year will be bringing PM 5 online to produce parent rolls mainly for conversion to lightweight towel and napkins,effectively doubling the mill’s tissue production capacity, and taking the company from “scratch” to a two-mill, four-machine operation in less than a decade.

And the possibility of continued growth still hangs prominently on the horizon. “We’re pleased by how far we have come over the past few years,” Sahil Tak says. “But we also realize our journey has really just begun because opportunities abound in the industry.” This developing success story is especially interesting considering that neither Sahil nor his father, Sharad Tak, had any previous background or experience in the tissue industry, or the paper industry at all for that matter, prior to jumping in with both feet beginning in 2007.

Sahil is quick to dispel the “myth” that US manufacturing today cannot succeed. He acknowledges the US faces progressively higher hurdles when competing on a global stage with countries that have lower labor and raw material costs, and some with lower transportation and overall energy costs, etc. “A lot of other countries subsidize manufacturing. China, especially, heavily subsidizes financing costs and labor, in addition to currency, and so financially it can sometimes be tough for US manufacturers to compete.

“Manufacturing is a very capital intensive business,” Sahil continues. “But being tough is one thing and saying it can’t be done is another. There are a lot of manufacturing businesses in a wide range of industries that are succeeding here in the US on a year in and year out basis. So it can be done.”

In regard to ST Tissue’s basic business strategy or modus operandi philosophy, Sahil says, “There are a few layers to it, but it all starts with our core belief, which I think holds true across any business, that, among all of the costly pieces of equipment and machinery the company has, our employees are by far the most important asset. It’s important that the employees are put in a position to work safely, learn new skills, experience career progression, and be engaged. Plus, the business should be an integral part of the community where it is operating by contributing to its well-being and health. And it’s also important that you have a workforce in a community that is invested in your operations, and that they care about and support your success—that they care about and value the jobs.

“Beyond that, the first layer, if you will, focuses on whether there is a need within an industry for something. In our case, for example, there is a need for certain types of tissue products in the markets we serve. Despite the fact that it is a segment with gradual growth and development, there is a defined need for it.

“Then there has to be a way to define yourself in the market—can you differentiate yourself in the basic way that you do business? I think we’ve been able to do that in the way we go about rebuilding or turning around operations. At the same time, you need to establish long-term relationships with your customers to be able to help them drive their growth and success. In doing so, you can continue growing for a long time. That means consistently giving them very high quality products—and, again, ‘consistency’ is a key word here. You have to make your customer feel very secure in this regard.

“Our company also places a focus on being a good community citizen. One example is creating good jobs in a community. For every direct job you author, there are typically five indirect jobs created. Our businesses have donated money to local schools, hospitals, shelters, senior centers, police stations, etc. Furthermore, we consider ourselves stewards of the environment, so we focus on being at the forefront of implementing sustainable practices within our industry, and our environmental record and certifications are evidence of that. Each of these examples helps us generate an immediate, long-lasting impact in the local and global community,” Sahil points out, summarizing ST Tissue’s general approach to business that underlies its success during the past decade.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, in regard to ST Tissue’s announced plans for the $35 million expansion, noted that,“In 2013, ST Tissue resurrected a former paper mill and converted it into a leading paper products manufacturing facility that continues to grow and thrive in Isle of Wight County. We are proud that this important corporate partner put citizens back towork and has made the decision to further invest in its operation and workforce. Growing the advanced manufacturing sector in the Commonwealth is a fundamental part of our efforts to diversify and build a new Virginia economy, and ST Tissue’s expansion is a great testament to our ongoing success.”

Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Todd Haymore added that “ST Tissue is an important manufacturer and cor-porate partner on Virginia’s roster. The company has breathed new life into its retrofitted Isle of Wight facility, and is positively contributing to the resurgence of manufacturing in the Commonwealth, an industry that employs more than 240,000 and represents $118 billion-plus in direct annual economic output in Virginia.”

Looking toward the future, Sahil emphasizes that “we like this industry. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t, and we wouldn’t be growing if we didn’t want to do well. Our growth so far has been organic. Going forward, I think continued growth will likely be a combination of both organic growth and acquisitions. We will be keeping our eyes open for opportunity.”

CONVERSION OF PM 5

As with PM 6 that was converted from fine paper to tissue production and started up in 2013, PM 5 will retain the headbox and the fourdrinier forming section, only with minor modifications.

Sahil explains that there were a couple of key reasons for expanding at Franklin rather than Oconto Falls. “No 1,” he says, “is that we had an existing machine track here—the old IP/Union Camp PM 5—and here would be a rebuild versus starting from scratch at Oconto Falls. In this market region there is more projected population growth and, accordingly, more expected market growth. There were other pluses and minuses for both locations, but I believe that Wisconsin also would have been an excellent location if we had selected it.”

As with PM 6, PM 5 will produce parent rolls for the away-from-home (AfH) market. At 237 in. on the reel, PM 5 will be a little less wide that the 310-in. PM 6, and it will produce 50,000 tpy of dry creped tissue compared with 70,000 tpy of wet creped tissue on PM 6. The new downstream hard-wound towel converting line will allow the mill to provide its customers with out-sourced toweling finished goods.

Also as with production on PM 6, parent rolls made on the newly converted PM 5 will carry a number of third party envi-ronmental certifications for its responsible and sustainable manufacturing processes. While the mill currently produces kraft napkin and towel exclusively, the PM 5 expansion will enable it to also produce recycled bleached, along with virgin, napkin, and towel for its customers.

Sahil explains that having a wet crepe (PM 6) and a dry crepe (PM 5) machine side by side will give the mill expanded capability for a wider range of products. Both machines will have the capability to make similar grades, as needed.

“PM 6,” Sahil says, “is primarily a toweling machine, although it also produces napkin. While we might occasionally make some toweling on PM 5, it made more sense for PM 5 to be focused on producing lightweight grades of towel and napkin. Depending on market demand, we have the capability of being flexible with both machines.”

Like PM 6, PM 5 has a fourdrinier forming section that will be retained more or less as is, according to D. Kesavaraman, plant engineer. The existing headbox will also be retained. Only minor modifications will be made to the forming board, Kesavaraman says.

The hood will be provided by Andritz and the new stainless steel yankee dryer will be provided by Toscotec of Italy. Toscotec also is supplying the crepeing blade and system.There will be no after dryers as with the PM 6. Tissue creped off of the yankee dryer will go directly to the reel, winder, and roll finishing. Toscotec is providing engineering services for the PM 5 expansion.

FIBER RECYCLING PLANT (FRP)

The fiber recycling plant at the Franklin mill was originally designed to provide fiber for IP’s fine paper machines. Chris McGrath, process area leader for the fiber recycling plant, who previously worked at the mill with IP, explains: “We recycled sorted white ledger and sorted office waste. There were various mixes throughout the years, but obviously, we were trying to use more sorted office waste for pricing purposes.”

The FRP is located a long way from the tissue machine room—about a mile. A long, above-ground conveyor transports recycled fiber from the FRP to the machines. Pulp drops onto the conveyor at the FRP, rolls upward as it leaves the building, travels back through nearby woods for some distance, goes over a small creek to the back side of the mill, and then drops into a high density chest, from which it is dispersed.

“ST Tissue made some operational changes to this layout,” McGrath emphasizes. “We didn’t necessarily add equipment, we just added some piping and some bypassing capability. As a tissue mill, we weren’t after the same quality parameters as with fine paper. We made some design changes so that we could run white fiber, or we could run kraft. For the first couple of years, we swapped back and forth, transitioning from white to kraft every few weeks, depending on orders from the machine. As time went on,the market was changing a bit and the economics of making changes from kraft to bleached and back dictated locking into kraft.

“We were able to simplify the plant to run kraft; however, we kept the capability to run white. That’s a big deal with our system—be flexible. We have it set up now so that we can just make some valve lineup changes to bring different equipment on or off line, depending on what grade we are running. FRP

IMPROVEMENTS ALL ALONG

The wet crepe PM 6 retained eight dryer drums following the yankee dryer. However, PM 5 will be a dry crepe machine and will have no after dryers following the yankee dryer.

“We have made a lot of improvements with the existing FRP all along, and have been debottlenecking all along,” McGrath continues. “We added a drum screen recently to our pulping sequence. That debottlenecked the batching sequence, because when you pulp, you have to go through a detrasher, especially when you feed ‘cardboard’ and you’ve got all of these plastics. We now take a side stream off of that detrasher and send it to the drum screen, which is basically a tumbling screen that takes the plastics out and the good fiber goes on through. We installed that in November 2016, and since then we have gone from averaging 26-27 batches to sometimes as many as 36 per day. As a result, we increased capacity up front in the process.”

The FRP used to struggle sometimes to keep up with the tissue machine when they were running towel, McGrath points out. “Now, when we’re both lined out, which we have been lately, the FRP actually has a little excess capacity to play with. With napkin, we now can actually out-run them, take a little down time and make some repairs on the fly without having to plan for outages, which has helped.”

NEW FRP PULPING SYSTEM

Chris McGrath Process Area Leader, Fiber Processing Plant

When PM 5 comes online later this year, the existing FRP would not be able to feed both machines with its current setup. So a new pulping system is being installed in a second building that will be erected to the south of the existing recycling warehouse. It will house a conveyor, a pulper, detrasher, and a drum screen—a combination of existing and new equipment.

The pulper and associated equipment will be new, and ST has partnered with Voith to help with the augmentation of the facility. Some of the screens and other equipment from by-passed sections of the plant will be repurposed into the new addition, and the remainder of the equipment is already installed in the FRP plant.

“We have a lot of piping changes to make and a lot of existing equipment is being refurbished. The first quarter this year was used more for planning, and in the second quarter we will become more active. The third quarter will be a little stressful, and in the fourth quarter they are going to want to see some pulp,” McGrath says. “Our target is to have the FRP ready by November 1—a month before the planned PM 5 startup. So, we will be ready to roll by the projected date of December 1.

The FRP bale warehouse houses a variety of fiber mixes, including OCC, DLK, and other kraft recovered paper and boards, as well as MOW, SOW, ONP, and other post-consumer printing and writing paper grades.As with PM 6 that was converted from fine paper to tissue production and started up in 2013, PM 5 will retain the headbox and the fourdrinier forming section, with only minor modifications. Sahil Tak, vice president, ST Tissue Local and State Incentives Play Critical Role.

ST Tissue’s new PM 5 project will be supported by several local and state of Virginia incentives. As one key incentive, Virginia Economic Development Partnership worked with Isle of Wight County and the City of Franklin to secure the project for Virginia. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe approved a $167,500 grant from the Commonwealth’s Opportunity Fund to assist Isle of Wight and Franklin with the project. ST Tissue also is eligible to receive state benefits from the Virginia Enterprise Zone Program, administered by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. The company also will be eligible to receive sales and use tax exemptions on manufacturing equipment. Funding and services to support the company’s employee training activities will be provided through the Virginia Jobs Investment Program.

The City of Franklin, which usually gets 17.8 percent of gross tax revenue from the facility, has agreed to take that same per-centage after the county and state’s investments have been applied, meaning that Franklin has agreed to take less in taxes.

“Virginia is one of the most forward-thinking states in terms of cultivating its business ecosystem,” said VP of ST Tissue Sahil Tak. “We witnessed it first-hand as we built our mill in Isle of Wight in 2013 – the location, the workforce, the incentives from the state and local communities – it all adds up to a big advantage for Virginia when vying to attract new business. The state, and especially the community in Isle of Wight and Franklin, welcomed this opportunity with open arms and ushered this project forward against some very tough odds. Together we have proven that we can create manufacturing jobs here in the county, given there is broad level support from the state, local communities, and entrepreneurs willing to make it happen.”The wet crepe PM 6 retained eight dryer drums following the yankee dryer. However, PM 5 will be a dry crepe machine and will have no after dryers following the yankee dryer.

Dedicated Employee Base

D. Kesavaraman, Plant Engineer

In a discussion of ST Tissue’s workforce at the Franklin, VA, mill, VP Sahil Tak said that “One of the reasons we chose this site originally was because some of the IP and Union Camp workforce was still here, and they understand how to make paper—not tissue necessarily—but they understood the fundamentals of papermaking.

“They have strong roots in this area,” Tak added “and those we are able to bring back to the mill with us will likely be here a long time. It’s a generational thing—their parents or grandparents have lived in this area for many years. This is also true for Oconto Falls. A lot of the hard-working people at both mills are used to a manufacturing environment. They have a strong work ethic and dedication to their jobs.”

Of the 85 employees currently at the Franklin mill, some 50 were former IP/Union Camp employees. “I think there are still some former IP and Union Camp employees living in the area that might be interested in coming back to the mill,” Tak said, in regard to staffing for the PM 5 expansion.

Tak noted that almost all of the workers at both Franklin and Oconto Falls are local. “But from time to time we do have people go back and forth between the two locations, usually to exchange experience and insights among the two workforces.”Chris McGrath process area leader, Fiber Processing Plant D. Kesavaraman, plant engineer.

Marketing Strategy 

At the base of ST Tissue’s marketing strategy are some basic essentials. “We develop close relationships with our customers,” VP Sahil Tak said, “so we can understand what they are trying to do with their products. And we can help them by consistently providing high quality parent rolls, so that day-in and day-out their machines run in the same fashion.

“Product consistency is a key element in our marketing strategy. In this regard, we also focus on consistently on-time delivery to our customers, so they don’t have to worry about any hiccups in the supply chain. It’s almost like we are an outsourced provider of their products.

“We also want to help our customers expand their product line with products they typically haven’t been used to selling or hadn’t had a source for and thus were not ever able to market,” Tak explained.

 

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