Archive for paper industry

Sep
10

China’s Answer to Gutenberg, Wang Zhen, To Be Honored in the Paper Industry International Hall of Fame, 2015

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On October 15, 2015, Appleton, Wisconsin’s Paper Industry International Hall of Fame will be inducting six people into the Hall of Fame. One of them is an innovator and leader from ancient China who can be considered as China’s answer to Gutenberg. Gutenberg is frequently honored in the West as one of the most important inventors ever for giving us the world’s first book printed with movable type, a remarkable achievement from around 1455. As with many inventions long thought to have had European origins, there’s a touch of Eastern flavor in this one, for Gutenberg’s Bible came 142 years after the world’s first mass-produced printed book made with movable type, the large Book of Farming (Nong Shu) from China, printed in 1313 by Wang Zhen.

Wang Zhen was a Chinese official who recognized that vast amounts of agricultural technology scattered across China needed to be preserved to help all of China reduce famine and be more productive. He took a Chinese invention, movable type, and improved upon it to make a practical way to print an entire book. He used carved wooden blocks for each character, and developed a sophisticated way of arranging them on two rotating tables to allow typesetters to quickly find needed characters to place them in his press. The Nong Shu was printed and preserved many notable inventions in China, including an early form of a blast furnace driven with a reciprocating piston attached to water works, something long that to be a later European invention.

Recognizing Wang Zhen for his important role in the advance of printing is a fitting step for the Hall of Fame, and I look forward to many more Asian inventors, scientists, and business leaders being recognized in the Hall of Fame in future years. The historical contributions of China in numerous fields have received far too little attention, and I’m delighted to see folks in Appleton taking the lead in rectifying this problem. Kudos to the Paper Industry International Hall of Fame!

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Jul
10

Another Surprise from China: The Tralin/Tranlin IP-Backed Financing Results in Jobs and Green Technology for the US

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In a previous post here, I reported a huge loan to a Chinese paper company backed by its mostly Chinese IP as collateral. The 8 billion RMB obtained by China’s Tralin Paper (Quanlin Paper in Chinese, though they use www.tralin.com for their website), one of the biggest IP-backed loans in the world, not only shows that Chinese IP is coming of age, but is now being used to bring some of their technology to the US and to create over 2,000 US jobs. Tralin Paper, renaming themselves as Tranlin Paper for some reason, has just signed a deal with the State of Virginia, obtaining state support as Tralin/Tranlin/Quanlin invests $2 billion to create a new environmentally friendly paper mill and create over 2,000 US jobs. Recent news  from the office of Governor Terry McAuliffe of Virginia proudly announces the plans of “Tranlin Paper.” Also see reports at TAPPI.org and MFRTech.com.

As the West continues to decry Chinese IP and innovation, always viewing China as a source of IP theft and job loss for the US, this story may come as a pleasant surprise. Here is an innovative Chinese company that has created and protected their own IP in a green technology, used innovative financial tools (and plenty of solid Chinese guanxi) to obtain massive financing based on that IP, and then brought their money and their technology to the US to create many jobs. At least some parts of this story are going to be repeated in many ways in days to come. The old paradigm of China lacking IP or lacking valuable IP is fading.

After the announcement at ChinaPaper.net, the first report on this story to the English-speaking world, as far as I know, was my original March 6, 2014 report here at InnovationFatigue.com followed by an update here on the Shake Well blog that gave a translation of the Chinese story. It was picked up by Intellectual Asset Magazine and by World Trademark Review, but is still a generally unrecognized but important story.

China still has a long ways to go in overcoming its problems and strengthening innovation and IP, but the trends here are remarkable and should not be discounted. Meanwhile, we should welcome stories like Tranlin’s, and watch for many more to come. But for some US companies, this will mean even tougher competition that won’t be easily avoided with restrictive, protective tariffs or antidumping legislation.

(Similar account cross-posted on the Shake Well Blog.)

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Nov
15

Even Mature, Basic Industries Must Remember This: It’s an iTunes World

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At Tissue World 2012 in Shanghai this week, a conference related to the booming business of producing tissue paper, I had a sobering conversation with a former employee from one of the world’s great equipment companies. I overheard a current employee at this company state that things were slow, in spite of the global surge in tissue production. In fact, if I heard correctly, this leading company “had no orders” for their machines. A disaster. Hundreds of employees may lose their jobs in coming months, as far as I can tell, in spite of this segment of the industry being healthy and active.

The former employee explained the disaster to me. From what I can gather, the problem stems from the decision by management to perfect their processes and standardize their offerings for ultimate efficiency. That sounds like good business, right? It’s what any good MBA would want to do, right? Sure. But what it did was take the focus of the company away from meeting the diverse needs of their customers and instead tried to force customers to conform to the needs and desires of the supplier. Customized orders were given punitive pricing, and pricing of standardized products was made completely inflexible. The company developed highly efficient, nearly perfect systems, and lost their customers. Disaster.  When massive cost reduction becomes massive customer reduction, you’re toast.

We live in an iTunes world. People are increasingly expecting the products they buy to be tailored to their needs. They expect offerings to be flexible, customizable, adapted to their needs. If you can’t build flexibility into your product line and into the service you offer your customers, if you can’t understand and meet their individual needs, your relationship, though decades long, can suddenly evaporate. They can close your web page and in moments find a different vendor that they can work with. You must adapt the way you do business and have ways of customizing what you do and how you do it without adding exorbitant fees.

You may need to rethink your business model to do this. You may need to consider adding some new partners in your supply chain, and perhaps retooling your apps and website to provide a more customized feel for those placing orders or learning about your products. You may need training of your sales staff and marketing teams. But you can’t ignore that we are in an iTunes world with flexible competition everywhere. You must innovate and adapt to better meet the needs of your customers and keep your business, even a very mature business, alive.

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Mar
15

The Future of Biofuels: Environmental Innovation Fatigue for Environmental Advances?

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The federal government has set bold and challenging goals for future increases in the production of energy from non-fossil fuel sources. Seeking to curb our dependence on foreign oil as well as fossil fuels in general, our nation is encouraging the development of fuels from biological sources. Biofuels, diesel and gasoline made from renewable sources such as agricultural waste, forest sources, and algae, are a top priority and are the subject of extensive government-funded research and tax credits. Biofuels are a rich source of innovation and show an explosion in patent activity in the past 3 years.

Unfortunately, biofuels are also facing daunting challenges from uncertainty in federal regulations and tax policy that threatens to bring many innovations to a halt as industry puts many developments on hold due. The uncertainty in the environment–the regulatory and tax environment created by the government–is actually hindering many biofuel projects aimed aimed at enhancing the environment in the long run. This was the sentiment from several speakers in the midst of biofuels innovation in sessions at BioPro Expo 2011, a major conference on biofuels and forest bioproducts, being held in Atlanta, Georgia, March 14-16. Concern about government barriers to commercialization of biofuels advances was a repeated theme.

One example is federal regarding the definition of “renewable” for those seeking federal incentives for the use of renewable sources of fuels. Municipal solid waste (MSW) has a large component of plant-based materials such as paper and food waste, and is one of the most available and commercially attractive biofuel sources. The technology is proven, the raw material is available and economically feasible, and projects are ready to roll–except they have largely been put on hold until the federal government rules on whether MSW can be counted as “renewable” or not. Then there are strict new rules on boiler operation (the Industrial Boiler Maximum Achievable Technology, or BI MACT, rule) throwing another wrench and major cost burden on the backs of those with boilers generating energy from biomass sources. There are a host of other rules and conflicting definitions and policies adding to uncertainty, risk, and cost in commercializing biofuels. For the innovator, it is a challenging era with the potential of innovation fatigue from external or environmental factors.

Let’s hope that the rich opportunities being uncovered in biofuels can be commercialized rapidly and that the barriers to innovation can be reduced.

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May
08

Innovation and Sustainability: Lessons from the Paper Industry at PaperCon 2010

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The international conference on the paper industry, PaperCon 2010, was held April 2-5 in Atlanta, Georgia, where nearly 1300 attendees gathered to learn the latest developments in areas such as papermaking, coating, and broader issues such as innovation, leadership, and sustainability. The “broader issues” are handled in the 1/3 of the program managed by PIMA, the Paper Industry Management Association, and I had the privilege of being the PIMA Programming Chair for 2010, working with a terrific team of people to bring in a series of great speakers. TAPPI.org shows details of the PIMA track.

I was especially interested in our Carbon Management track, where we had a lineup of experts giving us insights into trends and challenges the industry will face. These speakers included Marilyn Brown, the Nobel laureate from Georgia Tech; Don Carli of The Institute for Sustainable Communication; Don Brown of Agenda 2020, Ben Thorp, a former industry executive widely recognized for his expertise in biofuels and energy issues; George Weyerhaeuser Jr., former Weyerhaeuser executive and Senior Fellow, World Business Council for Sustainable Development; and Tom Rosser, Director General of the Policy, Economics and Industry Branch of the Canadian Forest Service at Natural Resources Canada.

From these speakers, I learned that issues of climate change and environmental responsibility are far more complex than one would ever imagine from listening to popular pundits in the media. Don Carli, who recently made quite a splash in the media with his essay, “Is Digital Media Worse for the Environment Than Print?,” explained that many groups making environmental claims of “saving trees” by using digital technologies such as electronic bill pay, online content, or email versus paper have failed to provide any plausible basis for their claims. In fact, the use of digital media currently promote deforestation of old growth forests in the form of West Virginia mountain tops that are leveled during the mountaintop coal mining that provides much of the coal used in producing much of our electricity (for an intro to the horrors of mountaintop coal mining, see ILoveMountains.org). But Carli points our that there are huge opportunities for innovation in this area, with the potential to improve the electrical efficiency of digital media and data center by an order or magnitude or more. In my opinion, this must become a priority for innovation in sustainability, not shutting down sustainable, managed plantations of trees which are actively replanted and remove large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere without blowing the tops off mountains and dumping the remains into once-pristine streams.

I also learned that green innovations in energy can sometimes result in valuable energy sources being used poorly. Ben Thorp, for example, explained that a standalone turbine using biomass to produce electricity might have an overall energy efficiency of only 18-20%, but if that same turbine is integrated with, say, a papermill to allow waste heat to be more effectively used and to gain other benefits, the overall efficiency can reach 70%. A reasonable approach to sustainability must include using our energy resources efficiently. Simply assuming that biofuels or power from biomass is inherently desirable is unjustified if much of the potential is being wasted.

Meanwhile, some environmental activists are beginning to see the wisdom of wood as a sustainable, replenishable material that takes carbon out of the atmosphere (whether that’s truly desirable or not is still an issue of controversy). The “Je Touch du Bois” (“I touch wood” in French, literally, but this is also similar to English’s “knock on wood” saying expressing a wish for good luck) campaign in Canada led by a former Greenpeace activist is evidence of that. Watch for this perspective to grow.

As with innovation in general, it’s difficult to get the right answer even when one does their homework. Finding breakthroughs that solve real problems and become adopted in society for positive change requires iteration on several fronts: iteration in the technology, in the business model, and in the message and how it is shared. One rarely gets it right the first time, and the winners are those who have something left to keep moving forward as they change and respond to the brutal realities of the marketplace and of science, which is often tentative due to limited human understanding.

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Jan
15

The Forest Bioproducts and Paper Industries: The Need to Conquer Innovation Fatigue

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The North American paper industry suffers from a largely undeserved image problem. Many view it as an antiquated smokestack industry, when it has been a leader in exciting areas in technology and business practice. Fans of biofuels and green energy, for example, should know about the pioneeing efforts from the forest bioproducts industries, including many paper companies. “Green energy” from forest biomass has been the basis for economic success in pulp production for decades. A kraft mill burning black liquor is a stellar example of recovering useful energy from the byproducts of a renewable resource, coupled with smart recycling and regeneration of chemicals.

The industry has also been an important part of advances in practical aspects of RFID technology, in supply chain management, in green labeling and packaging, and in many other area. In nanotechnology, papermakers have actually been dealing with nanoparticles and complex colloids for decades, producing increasingly useful and practical products built with nanotechnology employed at a massive scale. In plant genetics, crop management, and stewardship over bio-resources, the forest products industry have demonstrated world-class capabilities and results. Industry stewardship has led to more trees and forest lands in the United States than we had a century ago. Advances in plant management have led to almost miraculous results such as the ability of carefully managed plantations of eucalyptus trees in Brazil to yield trees that can be harvested after just five years – and perhaps even less in the near future.

But with the proud history of innovation and leadership that I see in the forest products industry, it pains me to see how little recognition it received, and how little sense of that tradition seems to be alive in the industry today. On too many counts, the industry appears to be seized with innovation fatigue.

In the new book from John Wiley and Sons, Conquering Innovation Fatigue by Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins, and Mukund Karanjikar, we identify sources of innovation fatigue factors in three primary areas: the behavior of individuals including innovators themselves and the people around them (“people fatigue”), organizational-level flaws such as flaws in vision and decision making (“organizational fatigue”), and external factors such as challenges in IP law, burdensome regulations, tax policies, and trade policies. It is easy to point fingers at management and criticize their lack of courage or willingness to invest, but we must recognize that the forest products industry have faced unusually painful burdens due to external factors which have only strengthened systematic incentives to cut back on innovation and focus on cost-cutting.

There is a need for policy makers to consider the “voice of the innovator” and the unintended harmful impact that some laws and policies can have on long-term innovation. Policies are needed that put manufacturing industry on a more equal footing relative to global competitors who are generally free of the numerous burdens North American industry faces. Policies are needed that reduce the many disincentives corporations may face to be innovative and more visionary here on North American soil.

Meanwhile, there are other things that North American industry can do. Innovation, whether in business models, products, or processes, must be viewed not as an expense to avoid, but as a necessity to survive. The key may not be to conduct detailed research related to the commodities now being produced, but to boldly explore adjacencies and new product spaces as MeadWestvaco did. We see some of this in the biofuels area, such as creative approaches to integrated biorefineries using technologies suited for local biomass and other local resources and markets. We see this in many of the packaging innovations created by innovators in paper-related companies. We see this in the example of companies like Kimberly-Clark that transformed themselves from commodity makers to producers of world-class high-value consumer products rich with innovation and intellectual property.

The most exciting innovations of the future will come at the intersection of disciplines. Building the right relationships and networks across companies, innovators, and institutions will be needed to be aware of the possibilities and to seize them. The technologies we are using today and the know-how we have developed in the forest products industries may be the foundation for rich innovations in nanotechnology, health care, electronics, and various emerging fields, if only we have the courage to explore wisely, with talented minds empowered and motivated to find the paths forward, unhindered by the chains of innovation fatigue.

This post is related to a longer article written for Tappi360 magazine, Dec. 2009.

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Jul
24

Green Innovation: Unexpected Gems

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As the world becomes more “green conscious,” green innovation will increasingly be an area where the best of human creativity can surprise and delight us. One of my favorite case studies in Conquering Innovation Fatigue is that of Orion Energy Systems (NASDAQ: OESX), where CEO Neal Verfuerth’s personal journey of innovation has resulted in a large company that can dramatically cut the power bills of large and small companies with massively innovative lighting systems and a retrofitting approach that recycles everything. Green capitalism at its best!

Green innovation extends to many other areas. One intriguing example from the Netherlands is GreenGraffiti®, a sustainable advertising and communication method that involves simply power washing a sidewalk or other dirty surface using a template that results in a “clean green” message standing out from the normal untreated background. Better than paint, posters, neon, or billboards, this form of communication doesn’t require removal or cleanup and doesn’t harm the environment unless you want to nit-pick about the small amount of water and electricity used to create the message, and the template itself).

One of the clients of Innovationedge has a remarkable green innovation for the paper industry. The Fractionating Saveall™ by a Wisconsin inventor is a remarkable device that helps papermakers, especially tissue makers, recover good fibers from waste streams and improve the quality of the water (“whitewater”) that is recycled in the paper machine. His clever device relies on the water flow itself to drive the rotating flexible conical screen that does the work, using no electricity or other additional power.

Fractionating Saveall in Use at a Tissue Mill

Fractionating Saveall in Use at a Tissue Mill

The conical fabric screen rotates under the action of jets of water carrying fibers and “junk” (ash and “fines” – materials that are often undesirable at high concentations that can build up in a paper machine). It gathers desirable long fibers inside the screen, which roll down to a central collection area where they are sent back to the paper machine, while the water high in ash and fines but low in fiber goes outside the screen, where it can then be purified or partly sewered without losing good fiber.

The flexing of the fabric screen is what gives this process so many advantages over past approaches. A metal screen can quickly plug up. But the fabric screen has a self-cleaning action due to the continual flexing back and forth as it rotates and passes under water jets that momentarily push it outward. This flexing keeps fibers from locking into place onto the screen. High efficiency, low maintenance, easy installation – really brilliant. We have a unit in Appleton that can be seen upon request, and much more info is available upon request. Green, clean, and lean – perfect for a paper machine.

Naturally, a tool like this can find applications in other fields as well. Separation of solids from water is important in the food processing industry, in mining, in biomass conversion, in water purification, in waste treatment, and in many other areas. The mesh of the screen, flow rates, system diameter, and post-processing systems can all be adapted to meet the separation objectives needed. I some cases, the presence of added surfactants, defoamers, or other agents may be helpful in optimizing performance. Contact us with your application and let’s discuss how one or more of these units could be applied to meet your needs.

The story of this innovation is one that fits many of the lessons of Conquering Innovation Fatigue. We hope to share it in the near future, after this device becomes more fully known and appreciated by the industry.

For more information, see the Executive Summary for the Fractionating Saveall (PDF file).

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InnovationFatigue.com is the official blog for the new book, Conquering Innovation Fatigue. Here we provide supplementary innovation, news, tips, updates, and, when needed, a correction or two, to keep those who are using the big on the inside edge for innovation success.