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Fri, Oct 28, 2016 13:45
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Technical Side

The Times They Are A Changing

That there is significant change across the paper industry is demonstrated all too frequently. Recently I attended the 66th annual Appita Conference and Exhibition, which was staged in Melbourne, Australia. Appita is the technical association representing the pulp and paper industry in Australia and New Zealand, having a role and focus similar to that of TAPPI.

In many ways this conference confirmed graphically the way that the industry has changed. In this example, however, the change has been positive and provides something of a benchmark of how the industry must adapt and reinvent itself to address the impact of the changes and pressures that are all too obvious. In a previous column I lamented about the decline in research effort related to the pulp and paper industry in this part of the world. As a result of that decline in research, fewer original technical papers are being offered for presentation at Appita conferences. At the same time, we’ve seen a serious decline in conference attendance by personnel from the manufacturing companies and representatives of the emasculated research organizations. 

Appita has been taking some bold initiatives to address the declining support for the conference. In the first instance, the roster for conference sites was stabilized to just two locations that maximized the potential for attendance. The conference cycle was set over three years, with two conferences in Melbourne and a third in Rotorua, New Zealand.

Unlike TAPPI, every annual Appita conference includes a suppliers’ exhibition. It is always a challenge to attract a comprehensive showcase of suppliers to the industry, particularly the major equipment suppliers, as the opportunity for major capital sales is so limited these days. Nevertheless, there has been continuing,  if modest support, perhaps more out of altruism than optimism. For most suppliers, the glory days of extravagant and expensive displays are long gone and these days booths are more modest and personally interactive.

The real change has been in the program content. Because there is not the quantity (or arguably the quality) of fundamental technical papers offered for presentation, a new approach was needed. The new model also had to recognize that in this era of the bottom line and no frills that mill people are more likely to be sponsored to attend if the conference includes a focus on "practical" information transfer.

So what has changed? There still remains a core stream of technical papers because Appita Journal maintains a reputation for publication of significant quality peer-reviewed papers, and these primarily originate from conference presentations. However, the conference also provides a robust array of parallel streams to cater to a wide range of participants, and which provide a cogent and value-justifiable reason to attend the conference. 

The Appita Conference and Exhibition is staged over three days, preceded by a low-key networking event and exhibition preview. This year all participants were welcomed at an opening conference breakfast meeting with an eminent speaker. Each day consisted of a number of parallel streams, typically two technical streams and two other options. At the recent conference, examples of conference options included a one day summit on "People, Profits, and Productivity" (the conference theme) and a Clean Energy Summit, both featuring a range of invited renowned speakers to address the theme. There were also a number of high level forums that focused on matters of broad interest. These included a forum on procurement, a forum on packaging/print, and one on safety best practice. Each session was convened by a suitably appropriate invited person to ensure a free flowing and connected session, supported by experts in the field.

Complimenting these special interest forums and summits there was an industry innovations stream. Essentially, this is an opportunity for suppliers to share novel and even product specific commercially oriented information. Interestingly, most suppliers presented excellent and well received information that avoided hard sell approaches. Presenters were rewarded by good attendance and the opportunity to discuss commercial offerings without the strictures of technical anonymity that is a prerequisite of standard technical presentations.   

To round out the program, a workshop on results oriented maintenance was presented by Christer Idhammar, IDCON founder and executive vice president. This was subject to an additional fee, but provided attendees the opportunity to network with the wider cohort of the industry and attend the exhibition.

The program itself might have been insufficient to ensure strong attendance by mill personnel, so member companies were offered a flat fee package that provided the opportunity for an ostensibly unlimited number of employees from a specific mill site or corporate office to attend. Obviously work priorities and shift rosters imposed a practical limit, but this option was seen as attractive by member companies.

These conference innovations have built a floor under the industry support for the conference and will need to be followed up by more innovations and a clear demonstration of the cost benefit of making staff and operators available to attend the conference in the future.

One way of enhancing this support is to demonstrate value to mill managers. To this end, a special forum was held for mill managers that at least ensured their attendance and provided suppliers with some exposure. Involving some managers and other executives as keynote speakers provided another personal connection.

Time will demonstrate if this approach is enough to underwrite ongoing viability and support for the conference, but at least there is some basis for a positive expectation. Appita also has been proactive on other fronts, with a comprehensive revamp of their publications. Appita Journal is now a separate and suitably academic co-bound section of Appita TIME (Technology, Innovation, Manufacturing and Environment), a quality information and technical resource magazine, available to members as a hard or soft copy, albeit on a slightly reduced publication frequency. Naturally, a hard copy is appropriate for our industry.

Separately, Appita's Pulp and Paper Industry Guide has been revised, upgraded and transformed into a leading edge annual source of information and resource for the Australian and New Zealand industry. As a member of a couple of Appita committees and a recipient of Appita awards, I must admit to some bias, but I do believe that Appita has not only acknowledged the fundamental changes that are facing the industry but has made a realistic effort to address them.

Appita has also quietly expanded its remit somewhat so that it seeks to represent the wider industry and not just the technical part of it. However it does have some competition in that area.

The Australian industry started to recognize the need to present with a common voice more than two decades ago, and most manufacturing companies united to establish the Pulp and Paper Manufacturers Association of Australia (PPMFA). Much was achieved, including the establishment of APPI (Australian Pulp and Paper Institute) and a cohesive voice in national affairs. Sadly, as the industry struggled to achieve sustainable profitability, the cost and perceived benefits of maintaining a viable industry organization resulted in the inevitable merging of the PPMFA with other organizations with apparently similar but ultimately diverse objectives. Initially, the PPMFA joined with the Australian Plantation Association and rebadged as A3P (The Australian Plantations Products and Paper Industry Council) but the merged organization did not sufficiently deliver the outcomes expected by either the forest or paper industry, probably because it did not represent the entire forest industry.

The most recent attempt to satisfy the disparate objectives of diverse but ultimately related interests has seen the establishment in April 2011 of AFPA, the Australian Forest Products Association. This has been the outcome of a further merger of A3P with the National Association of Forest Industries. This organization now speaks with a united voice to provide "advocacy at a national level to present the forest based industry to government, media and the people of Australia." That said, the objectives and focus areas of AFPA are broad; it lists as its key areas of focus: wood and paper products manufacturing, carbon and energy policies, plantation investment, forest certification, curbing overseas illegal logging, water policies, and timber market development.

As necessary and as significant as these changes are with these key areas of industry representation and advocacy, it seems inevitable that these are just the first steps in what will be an ongoing evolutionary process, with the potential for more radical action from time to time if the pulp and paper industry in this part of the world is to have some reasonable chance of a prosperous future.

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