Modernizing the paper industry

Since the first industrial revolution, manufacturing has continuously adapted and evolved, but for most people, paper as a material hasn’t seemed to change that much. Yet in the last decade, there’s been a new revolution under way with one of the oldest manufacturing processes in the world going digital – but what does that mean for the people working within the paper profession?

It starts with our people
At DS Smith, there is little area where digitalization would not apply and we’re seeing it play a role in every facet of our business. We’re facing this challenge head on by taking the opportunity to play a powerful, leading role in our industry. For example, we’re boosting our use of smart and autonomous systems, fueled by data and machine learning, and this is transforming the way we work. Especially when it comes to harboring innovation to help modernize legacy processes and delivering solutions that are connected, digital, intelligent, autonomous and responsive.

Most importantly however, we’re doing with our people in mind first. The human impact of digitalization cannot be ignored, especially as it rapidly changes the skill set required of our workforce day in and day out. We’ve worked closely with our team to develop their expertise and be part of our future – and in return they’re working to grow the business and are now moving into increasingly influential positions within DS Smith.

This is resulting in a new-found confidence in factory employees, where they’re making use of digital technology that is user friendly and that drastically increases engagement and employee and stakeholder experience. New starters, who may assume our industry relies on paper-based systems and a perceived lack of data, instead now thrive in a workplace that has the tools to allow them to innovate and capture their own digital visions for the future of the business.

Indeed, our approach to digitalization has seen the company become more and more pragmatic in its approach, allowing our people the freedom to be entrepreneurial and giving them the investment they need to develop clever tools.

For example, our team members have developed real-time tracking of all paper reels through blockchain technology and have created their own unique code to reduce process variability and make an improved product. We are also using AI to link paper mills to corrugators to better understand the relationship between the two. Smart packaging has been developed which allows us to communicate and track product journeys, and lastly, on a more personal level, we’ve utilized VR to allow new recruits to step onto the shop floor remotely as working from home becomes more common.

Using digitalization to drive sustainability further
We know that being a sustainable company, driven by purpose, helps to engage and motivate our colleagues. It’s always been vital that we prioritize our investment in solutions that further encourages colleagues to deliver our purpose. By implementing digitalization as part of a detailed plan and vision, we are structuring a way forward that changes the organization but still maintains a continual focus on sustainability and a stellar customer experience, especially during challenging times such as Covid-19.

Digital solutions are already helping us to reduce power consumption, reduce contamination in raw materials and increase the overall quality. We’re also gaining data from areas of our supply chain and processes that were previously considered blind-spots and vast amounts of data now allow us to improve key quality and sustainability drivers.

These key quality drivers include: supplier quality improvement, process optimization, improved traceability, root cause solving and improved customer performance. Currently, we are working towards a goal of making key quality drivers identifiable by a connected end-to-end supply chain. This will provide 100 percent visibility in real-time, creating an integrated view across the enterprise for our employees and allowing them to better provide proactive solution management.

A paper mill, but not as we know it
The ability to empower our colleagues, to be able to identify, measure and better meet and exceed our customers’ needs, is where we strongly believe the benefits of digitalization lie for us. Now, as we see it implemented with great acceleration into our processes and operating environments, managing that change and coordinating its organizational impact with our people will be critical if we are to keep it aligned with our vision and customers’ and wider stakeholders needs.

As we move further into the decade, significant progress in the digitalization realm is being made in the papermaking industry, with employees reaping the rewards as a result. The industry has shown such resilience and adaptation already, and seeing innovative ideas come from within our business come to life, is really paving the way for a step change in operations and efficiencies within the industry going forward.

Guy Lacey
Guy Lacey is Next Generation Technology Director, at DS Smith, a leading provider of sustainable fiber-based packaging worldwide, which is supported by recycling and papermaking operations. DS Smith is committed to leading the transition to the circular economy, while delivering more circular solutions for its customers and wider society – replacing problem plastics, taking carbon out of supply chains and providing innovative recycling solutions.