Von Drehle Starts Up First Valmet NTT Tissue Machine in the U.S.

Machine is producing 30,000 tpy of quality tissue and towel products for the away-from-home market


On the last day of March this year, von Drehle Corp., headquartered in Hickory, N.C., USA, started up the first Valmet Advantage NTT tissue machine in the U.S. at its new tissue mill in Natchez, Miss. The startup went so well that the only word Production Manager Gary James could think of to describe it was a “blessing.”

Since 1974, the von Drehle Corp. has been supplying quality towel and tissue products to the away-from-home market. In 2007, the corporation became an ESOP company (Employee Stock Ownership Plan), distributing a large share of the company to its dedicated employees. In 2013, the von Drehle family decided to make the most significant investment in the company’s history and in the future—an investment in the continued success and growth of the employee/owners, the company, and their valued customers by acquiring the Mississippi River Pulp facility and installing the Valmet Advantage NTT machine, the first of its kind in the U.S.

The new machine was part of $100 million von Drehle invested to buy the idled Mississippi River Pulp (MRP) mill and property in Natchez in January 2013, upgrade its recycling/deinking processes, and install four tissue converting lines (fifth line currently being installed) in addition to the new tissue machine. The basically new facility now produces tissue and towel products (from 100 percent recycled fiber) that are sold to the away-from-home market, mainly to janitorial agencies who supply schools, colleges, office buildings, hospitals, government facilities, airports, restaurants, etc.

The NTT machine at Natchez has a production capacity of 30,000 tpy. Some two-thirds of that is captive to the mill’s own converting operations, with the remaining third shipped out as jumbo rolls, mainly to von Drehle’s Memphis, Tenn. operations. Some is sent to the company’s Las Vegas, Nev., converting plant, and a little goes to its plant in Maiden, N.C. (see sidebar on this page). The Natchez operation currently employs some 125 people, a number that is expected to ratchet up to near 150 as the mill brings its fifth converting line up and moves toward sustained, maximum output during the coming months.

Tissue360o magazine recently visited the von Drehle mill in Natchez to gather more information on its operations, meeting with Joe Pankratz, VP of manufacturing, and Gary James. Pankratz has the same title and responsibilities for both the Natchez mill and the company’s Cordova, N.C., operations. Details they provided of the Natchez mill are summarized in the following sections of this report.


Pankratz explains that “When we set out looking for a new machine, our first goal was based on the premise that there has to be a better, more efficient way of making tissue than our current technology that uses a suction pressure roll to dewater and stick the sheet to a yankee dryer. To be efficient, you have to dry the sheet in the most cost-effective way. That led us to a shoe press, away from the dryer. There have been shoe presses running up against yankee dryers on tissue machines in Asia for a number of years now. We also wanted the ability to make a different looking product and the ability to get more out of our recycled fiber, so we considered ATMOS technology along with TAD. Efficiency (energy and fiber use) and recycled fiber performance were critical because our bread and butter is lightweight, lower-cost bathroom tissue.

When we saw the Valmet configuration, with the Sym-Press (a shoe press pushing against a counter roll instead of the yankee), we thought that had to be the way to go. With this configuration, you’re going to get the nip right all of the time, regardless of operating speed and paper grade. In the past, it took a number of roll grinds and profile changes to get something close, but not perfect for the numerous grades that we need to run. These were some of the up-front drivers to go with the NTT technology,” Pankratz emphasizes.

With the market that von Drehle is in, process efficiency is always a big issue, Pankratz continues. “The entities that purchase our paper don’t really use it. They sell it to somebody else for their restrooms. Price is always important, so we have to keep our costs down. Textured capability gives us performance and cost opportunities. NTT would provide the lowest production costs when running the smooth belt, and opportunity for performance/appearance running in the textured mode.”

Von Drehle negotiated a good deal of trial time on the Valmet pilot machine at Karlstad, Sweden. “We were in Karlstad on three separate occasions,” Pankratz says. “At the time, Gary was working for Nalco. That organization provided materials and technical resources every time we went over there. This allowed us to work through yankee coating and release chemistry issues before it came time to start up.”

The von Drehle team was able to “play around” with both belts (smooth and textured) in Karlstad, using wet lap shipped from its mill in Natchez. With the NTT, when running either a smooth or textured belt, no air drying is necessary. “You come to the yankee with lower moisture than our Advantage DCT machines, Pankratz notes. “And this is where you save energy. Other things we learned at Karlstad early on that helped when making the decision on this machine were the additional benefits we saw, such as more tensile strength, stretch, and caliper build capability with our recycled fiber than on our DCT 100s. This press does a lot for us besides just taking out the moisture.

The additional benefits with the NTT we saw using our own recycled fiber at Karlstad definitely helped seal the deal,” Pankratz says.

Also, there’s such a demand for what the mill is currently producing, that it hasn’t yet gotten ahead of that production track. Possibly later this year, Pankratz and James believe, the mill may have a chance to run the textured belt, depending on market developments.

If we were to put in a new machine at either of our plants, whether we need to produce textured or not, I would strongly support another NTT—a press section, a couple of extra motors, and some horsepower, but it’s amazing how well it works. It’s like when crescent formers became available for everybody, how that changed the complexion of things. I think that’s where NTT is today. It’s simple enough compared with all of the other technologies, but it’s going to be the one to beat,” Pankratz emphasizes.


Once the decision was made to go with the Valmet Advantage NTT tissue machine, a lot of things happened quickly. After buying the MRP operations in January 2013, the order was placed with Valmet for the NTT machine the following spring, along with some go-ahead dollars to get engineering underway (before actual machine purchase).

We had been talking with Valmet for some time.” Pankratz says. “Baisch Engineering out of Kaukauna, Wis., got involved very quickly as did our construction company, and Valmet did their job. We put a lot of things in place during that first crummy, rainy, yucky winter, when we were trying to literally dig a big hole in the ground. It was a somewhat slow time, and everybody had room on their schedules. But about six months after that, everybody’s business took off, and resources tightened up.

One thing that helped get us to startup and pushed this thing uphill was Gary’s development of a crew, almost overnight. In addition to Gary, we had only two papermakers, one from our Cordova operation, the other from a plant near there. We fortunately were able to hire a bunch of operations people from the energy sector,” Pankratz explains.

James says that when he first came to Natchez, he sat down with Pankratz and talked with him about N.C. State University’s operator training. “We brought N.C. State down here for three days of operator training, and our whole mill went through that training together. We went through our entire deinking process and then got into NTT training. N.C. State had some experience with NTT—the basic concept, how it works, etc. Then we started planning of the machine, how to build it, etc.

We put our operators in site specific process training for six weeks. All were given a set of P&IDs (piping and instrumentation diagrams). We sat them down every day and went through the P&ID process in detail. We taught them how to read the P&IDs, what a control valve is, etc.—everything we thought they needed to know. We also used some of TAPPI’s tissue training course materials.

As the mill was being built, crew members put labels on every pipe, every 15 ft., establishing where everything was. We printed out all of the Valmet manuals and had onsite classroom training every day for another six weeks. We went over everything chapter-by-chapter, focusing on how one part of the process fits in with another. Then we had vendor training—how to make a forming section wire, a felt, how to define problems, what the structures are made of, etc. Albany International’s training was especially good in this regard. They have done a really good job here. Nalco came and gave us wet end training, yankee coating training, creping blade geometry training, etc. Altogether, we did about 20 weeks of training,” James explains.

Pankratz points out that another thing being done at Natchez is a tech system. “If we can get everybody up to our Tech 1 level (what we used to refer to as machine tender), instead of having four machine tenders to run a machine—one on each crew—we are going to have 12, 14, 16, etc.—the entire crew. When/if an individual is capable of learning and performing at the Tech 1 level, that’s the “bucket” we will put them in and pay them accordingly. Nobody has to wait 25 years to get to Tech 1 level. And the ones who shine move right up,” he explains.

Pankratz adds that “The guys Gary brought in here (operators/team) had good work histories and high mechanical aptitudes. We developed a really good team in the short amount of time we had. We ended up having to shuffle around wages and a few things. The corporation had not done anything this big before.”


The 30,000 tpy Advantage NTT tissue machine is 2.6 meters wide, with a design operating speed of 2,000 m/min. It has a profiling headbox, a four-roll forming section, suction turning roll, Valmet press, and dilution control. The cast iron yankee is 18 ft. in diameter, with insulated heads, It also has a profile steam box. The machine has steam decks around the top to help dissipate any condensate from anywhere.

The machine has a Valmet IT scanner (IR scanner), mist collection on the wet end, and a solid reel drum. The reel section is fully-automatic, as is roll handling. A 1,200 HP fire tube boiler fired by natural gas was brand new with the operation. The 30,000 sq. ft. machine room is designed to be expandable to accommodate a second tissue machine, with common control rooms in the center. The machine building complex includes a 12,000 sq. ft. roll storage area.

Regarding the choice of a cast iron yankee rather than a stainless steel unit, James says that, basically, he prefers a cast yankee. “How you treat it is how it treats you back,” he points out. “Through my years of experience, I know how to treat one. With the Nalco EWCD early wear detection system on our unit, we haven’t developed any chatter problems. I guess the biggest reason for buying a cast unit is heat transfer. If you know what you are doing with the coating chemistry, you don’t really have to put anything on top of that cast to make it work. The coating chemistry we use is a Nalco polymer type—Nalco 6450 Tulip. It doesn’t build molecular weight over time, temperature, and pH. So you don’t have to worry about those things like a PAE coating does,” James says.

During the March 31 startup this year, a sheet was on the reel the first try. The machine produced 27 tons of sellable tissue the first day. “The folks at Valmet were excited to see that happen. I think that Nalco also was pleasantly surprised with the startup. At Nalco, Gary had been involved with some of the other NTT startups in Chile and elsewhere, and that helped a lot. For a startup like this, you need experienced, knowledgeable people who know what they are doing to do it right. You can’t learn to run until you run, and we’ve learned a lot of things since then. Valmet has made some continuing corrections and things are proceeding very well,” Pankratz points out.

Once you have the sheet on the reel and are winding it up, then you just have control issues,” he explains. “There was automation that had to be tuned in, and we had the usual infant mortality failures of level sensors and pressure sensors, etc. Sometimes it would take two hours or more to figure out some of these little issues, and sometimes we might have to wait for another piece to come in. Valmet made changes throughout the startup—refiner work and similar things that sometimes held us back. But we were always able to run, only at a reduced speed. And because we were able to keep running, everybody was progressing and we never lost ground. It’s been like that ever since. Every once in a while we have a mechanical issue that crops up, and we occasionally have to run a few things on manual to work them out.”

The Natchez mill is now past its startup curve and things are looking very good. Valmet, Pankratz and James say, still owes the mill a couple of things to get up to speed—a couple of water handling issues that they are working through, for example. The mill has run 6,000 fpm, and has met production goals already. But to sustain that over time, there are a few more mechanical pieces that need to be added to the machine, they point out.

Pankratz and James are both very happy so far with the NTT machine. They say they are seeing what was expected with the structure and uniformity of the sheet. “It is just amazing compared with our other machines. We have to make a lot of lightweight tissue and towel, and have to make a lot of different grades. Some of the other technologies were sort of like a Swiss army knife—they could do a lot of different things, but don’t seem to really do any of them well. This machine was simpler than most of the others,” Pankratz notes.

When it’s time to take that belt off and put it on, it’s simple and fast,” James adds. “—a couple of hours at the most rather than a full day. Wire and felt changes also are easy. It’s a well-thought-out machine.”


The Natchez operations that von Drehle acquired in early 2013 originally started out as Diamond Co., making egg carton and other products from newsprint. It was acquired by MRP in 1995 and became a full-fledged deinked pulp plant. Pankratz noted that he was at the mill in October 2012 and it wasn’t running then, adding that he thought it had shut down about three months earlier, which would have been about mid-2012.

MRP’s wetlap sales had dropped off considerably about 2010 as demand in the area decreased, Pankratz explains. “MRP was struggling to find a place to send its wet lap. High moisture content affected the economics of shipping far. They mainly used mixed office wastepaper, the same grades we generally use today. We took out a lot of old equipment—their stock washers, side hill screens, etc., and put in a couple of Kadant/Black Clawson DNT washers. We replaced the high consistency pulper with a Voith Drum Pulper and Flotation Deinking System. Those were the biggest changes,” he says.

Currently, the mill’s pulp plant is capable of producing some 160 tpd, and the paper machine is designed for about 120 tpd. “But we have some surge capacity, Pankratz says. “Some of the grades we produce are heavier and require more tons per day. We still have the wet lap line, so when we’re not using all of our pulp capacity when the paper machine is running tissue grades, we make wet lap and build inventory. Then we put it back in the system for the heavier grade production runs.”

As noted, the tissue machine produces about 30,000 tpy with a current blend of two-ply bath tissue and lightweight towel. “Right now we are making a lot of lightweight tissue. Our biggest production is a 9 lb. bath tissue,” Pankratz points out.

Describing the pulp mill layout, James starts with the pulpers. “We have two pulpers—a batch pulper that is the older unit (was here when the mill was purchased from MRP) and a new drum pulper that can produce up to 200 tpd,” he says. “After that, the pulp goes through three stages of course screening and a fine screen, followed by stock washing (two DNTs). Washing is followed by thickening and kneading. Bromine chemistry color stripping is followed by flotation and thickening. Thick stock is pumped to the paper machine.


Natchez mill’s four currently operating converting lines make basically two tissues—a 1,000 sheet, 11 lb. tissue and a 9 lb. two-ply tissue, 500 count. It also makes jumbo bathroom tissue rolls, and two towel products. Some kraft tissue products are made at Natchez, from imported unbleached tissue. While most of the plant’s converted products are bleached, the operation does bring in some unbleached parent rolls for conversion into some towel products. The plant also has one folded towel line. The mill’s fifth converting line will become operational a little later this year.

Pankratz says that with NTT technology, the mill has the capability to compete in the private label at-home market somewhere down the road. ”If freight, energy, or fiber rates were to get outrageous, we certainly could sell some private label. But right now the business is very good where we are. We’ve got the infrastructure and the sales and service organization to deal with small customers, and they love it, and even some people who are tired of dealing with the bigger producers buy products from us. So that’s part of our fit. That’s why our market works for us.”

In answer to questions about possibly swinging production between plain and textured on the NTT at Natchez, Pankratz explains: “We currently have a couple of SKUs in our product line, for which we likely will be making a textured base sheet eventually. “We’ll experiment and develop that base sheet later this year. Longer-term, it’s a matter of what’s going on in the marketplace. There’s a lot of tissue capacity out there and if it ends up being helpful to make a product that looks and performs differently, operation in the textured mode will be more likely. At Karlstad, we were able to make a textured sheet at just over an 8 lb. basis weight. So we’re willing to go that route, but, again, there’s not really a push for it at the moment. As fiber prices start to increase, I expect that we’d look at opportunity to start replacing our wet crepe and dry crepe towel grades with a textured product. But that will be kind of a gradual thing. We don’t cut up everything we produce here. Right now, we send some to our Memphis operation and our Las Vegas plant. But the goal next year is to have enough converting capacity to cut it all up here.”

Pankratz and James say that the future looks very bright for the Natchez mill. “Anytime an organization of our size, when you make that leap—to make another 30,000 tons—you hope you have a home for it by the time the machine is running. Well, the machine’s running, and we are still buying paper. So, for us the old adage has worked—if you build it they will come. We’ve been pretty lucky in that regard. Our market expanded just a little bit and then a little bit more. It gets us into places that we couldn’t get to reasonably before. So it’s working out very well,” Pankratz concludes.  

Joe Pankratz, VP of manufacturing, is responsible for the Natchez operations and those at the Cordova, N.C., tissue mill. His paper industry career started in 1980 with Fort Howard in Green Bay, Wis., in the lab technical department and process engineering on paper machines. He subsequently went from Fort Howard to Pope & Talbot in the western part of Wisconsin, where he served as technical director and then superintendent. After Pope & Talbot bought a paper mill in Ransom, Pa., he transferred there as superintendent. After several years at the Pennsylvania mill, Pankratz went to work for three years with a Hong Kong firm in China and was involved in the construction of a couple of tissue mills there. His plan was to work there three or four years, then return to the states and work to supply those operations with wastepaper from the U.S. in the fiber end of it, sending fiber back and forth. He ended up going back to the states in 1999, to his old mill in Green Bay, which was then Fort James, working the deinked plant there, and eventually managing all of their nonwovens operations. He accepted an opportunity to come with von Drehle in 2007, at the Cordova, N.C., mill, as plant manager, and was later promoted to VP of manufacturing, a title he now holds for the Natchez mill as well.

We had basically used up all of our capacity at Cordova and were looking to expand. For about six months, we canvassed the country looking for the best sites. I told von Drehle that we are going to find a facility where we can use a good piece of what’s already there. The Natchez site had 100 acres, lots of stainless steel tanks, pipes, and various pieces of equipment we could use. It was a perfect fit for us,” Pankratz says.

Gary James, production manager, is responsible for deinking and papermaking at Natchez. His career in the paper business began in 1996 at Laurel Hill Tissue in Cordova, N.C., a mill that von Drehle acquired in 2007. He stayed at Cordova until 2006, when he went to Nalco Chemicals, spending 10 years there. He started with von Drehle on June 5, 2015.

The Cordova mill operates two DCT 100 tissue machines—one a dry crepe machine and the other a wet crepe machine. It has a production capacity of 58,000 tpy of tissue and towel paper.

von Drehle Corporation

Established in 1974, von Drehle maintains manufacturing operations in North Carolina, Nevada, Tennessee, and Mississippi. Its tissue mills in Cordova, N.C., and Natchez, Miss., produce jumbo parent rolls from 100 percent recycled fiber for on-site conversion of away-from-home tissue, towel, and dispenser products, and also ship jumbo rolls to the company’s converting plants in Memphis, Tenn., Maiden, N.C., and Las Vegas, Nev.

Through an international network of more than 400 distributor partners, the Hickory, N.C.-based company sells towel, tissue, and dispenser products to industrial, commercial, and institutional distributors, contract cleaners, and building maintenance service providers in North America.

Von Drehle also supplies dispensers for its various tissue and towel products These units have unique, innovative features, a stylish and attractive design, and are translucent for easy monitoring. They also feature an impact resistant hinge system, a unique snap-out key design, and a textured finish to hide scratches and smudges.

Since 1974, the von Drehle Corp. has been supplying quality towel and tissue products to the away-from-home market.

Tissue mill startup crew and first installation of the NTT plain belt. 

First roll produced at von Drehle’s new tissue mill in Natchez, Miss., March 31, 2016.

The wet end of the 30,000 tpy machine includes a profiling headbox, a four-roll forming section, suction turning roll, Valmet press, and dilution control.

The cast iron yankee is 18 ft. in diameter, with insulated heads. It also has a profile steam box.

The machine’s reel section is fully-automatic, as is roll handling.

Parent rolls are wrapped with clear film at the dry end of the machine.

Finished rolls are stored in a 12,000 sq. ft. roll storage area.

With the Nalco EWCD (Early Wear Chatter Detection) system on the yankee, the mill has not developed any chatter problems.

The machine room is designed to be expanded to house a second tissue machine, with a common control room between them.

The mill has four currently operating converting lines and a fifth one nearing startup.

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