The PAPTAC meeting in Montreal in February demonstrated an encouraging upturn in attendance, innovation and optimism about the forest products industry relative to the past several years or so.
I had previously attended PATAC (and its predecessors) conferences every year since 1969, but went skiing the last two years instead, since the attendance and my interest in the presentation had declined.
Delegate registrations this year was up, approaching 1,000, which is well above recent years, although not as high as it was before 1990.
The increase in numbers of registrants was good to see, but much more important to me was the variety of companies represented who are seeking ways to develop partnerships with pulp manufacturers to produce new products, mostly by replacing petroleum sources with wood-based raw materials. After 40 years working in pulp and paper mills, I am used to knowing the names of most of the companies attending technical sessions. In one session at this PAPTAC conference, over 80% of the companies and organisations represented were new to me.
Jonathan Goldhill, of Roland Berger Strategy Consultants, presented an overview of the Specialty Chemicals business, which he estimates at $500 billion/year. (Other estimates are higher.)
He caught everybody’s attention by pointing out that some specialty organic chemicals sell for thousands of dollars/kg, whereas paper sells for under a dollar/kg. (e.g. Krazy Glue, which discount retailers sell for $2500/kg). He went on to relate that well over 90% of organic specialty chemicals are made from petroleum raw material, and only about 3% from wood. He suggested that perhaps up to about 30% could be made from wood.
An economist from Resolute Forest Products (formerly Abitibi-Bowater) pointed out that his company, and others in the industry, have expertise in handling and supplying wood to industrial plants which have spare capacity due to the decline in markets for many kinds of paper. These sites have utilities, maintenance facilities, water supply, effluent treatment and operating permits and a skilled labour pool, so he suggests that they are ripe for development to make non-paper products from wood.
One example of non-paper uses of pulp is the production of Natural Fiber Composites, (www.GreenCoreNFC.com)
One of several companies active in the conference was BioAmber, which is presently building a large succinic acid plant in a petrochemical complex in Sarnia, Ontario. BioAmber currently uses corn as the major raw material, but is investigating the use of wood biomass. This is the kind of plant that Resolute would like to have on a mill site, so hopefully other companies making chemicals that most of us in the pulp and paper industry have never heard of will emerge.
Overall, I found it encouraging to see these and many other signs that the industry is looking for new products, while wishful thinking about the return of old markets was absent.
Jonathan Goldhill presented an interesting graph on the relative profitability of about 40 segments of the speciality chemicals market. Water management chemicals adhesives and cosmetics are high. Textile chemicals and printing inks are low.
In addition to the new technical directions being discussed in many of the sessions, there was a major emphasis on hiring young staff at all levels. The Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC) has predicted that its members will need to hire at least 60,000 workers by 2020 to replace 40,000 lost to retirement and another 20,000 needed to grow the industry.
A dozen pulp and paper manufacturing companies had stands in the trade show staffed by people from the Human Resources departments, all promoting the advantages of working in the industry.
A new website by FPAC (http://thegreenestworkforce.ca) describes a wide range of careers in the industry, with a strong emphasis on attracting youngsters. In addition, the website offers eight internships with wood products and pulp and paper manufacturers.
The site links to a large number of specific jobs, using a Twitter feed presentation. While probably attractive to many youngsters, this format will perhaps bamboozle over-30s, and it’s not easy to search through. The delay (actually lack thereof) between an employer deciding he wants to fill a post and a job seeker knowing of it is far ahead of the old way of posting an ad in a newspaper. The Twitter-style “help wanted” ad will of course reach masses of youngsters who have never bought a newspaper in their lives.
One sign of the changing times is that I emailed a question on TheGreenestWorkforce.ca site to the online contact address a few minutes before writing this (9:50 p.m. on a Sunday) and received a response within a minute. How many paper sales offices can match that?
A modest number of more traditional papers was presented, dealing with papermaking, bleaching etc, but those directed to new products seemed to be the best attended.
Although I missed the last two PAPTAC annual conferences, I intend to attend the next one.