Paper Industry Innovation - More Than You Might Think

Oct 20, 2017

Pitts_Mark-WebBy ​Mark Pitts
Executive Director, Printing-Writing, Pulp and Tissue

Today, it seems we are conditioned to think about innovation in terms of disruption or the emergence of products that are bigger, brighter, sharper, contain more memory or longer battery life. Paper has been so embedded in our lives over multiple generations that it is not only taken for granted, but sometimes thought of  as an analog industry in a digital world.

Yet our industry has survived recessions, war, global competition, soaring energy costs, increasing environmental regulation, e-books, tablet computers. We have proven time and again, through the resilience and ingenuity of our people, we can evolve our products and meet new customer needs. The paper industry has found innovative ways to reduce costs, increase productivity and developed new, value-added products that continue to make life better.

Innovation comes in many forms; sometimes accompanied by press releases and media coverage and sometimes through continuous improvement and optimization of operations that are implemented without major fanfare or hoopla.  All deserve to be recognized during National Forest Products Week, celebrated this year from October 15- 21.
By leveraging emerging technologies, the U.S. paper industry has made dramatic improvements in energy use, resource efficiency and operational flexibility, which has enabled it to compete in the global marketplace. Through innovation, older, inefficient facilities have been transformed into world-class operations that reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions, reduce water intake, extract more value from renewable biomass and are positioned to capture value in emerging markets.

As our industry looks to the future, we are working hard to take advantage of our strengths and find new opportunities within our unique bio-based and capital-intensive economy. A few examples:

  • The growth potential and value of printed or embedded electronics in paper is just beginning to be realized. By merging paper and digital technologies, the application of printed QR codes and embedded Near Field Communication in labels enables short-range communication between paper and electronic devices so brand owners can promote products and add security and anti-counterfeit functions to product packaging.
  • Completely new revenue streams are being developed by traditional paper manufacturers through extraction of nanomaterials from cellulose fibers that can be used to enhance the performance of products unrelated to the paper industry such as paints, coatings, cosmetics, adhesives and video screens.
    That comfy rayon shirt or sweater is likely the result of a process that regenerates wood fiber called dissolving pulp into high quality fabrics used throughout the textile industry.
  • Specialized casting and release papers are used to cure and set the surface appearance of vinyl films and simulated leather products used in the automotive industry as well as shoes, handbags and other fashion items.
  • New wood-fiber based packaging designs are reducing food waste, increasing in-store shelf life of produce and creating decorative displays to capture customer attention.

The global population is expected to exceed nine billion by 2050. It is a reminder that new solutions will be needed to meet the demands of an expanding world. I am convinced that our industry will continue to apply our innovative spirit and be an essential part of meeting those future challenges.