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Week of 20 April 2020: Robots mean maintenance safety

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In the current pandemic, we are seeing grocery stores accelerate their adoption of robots to restock store shelves. Once done, this will never go back to the old ways.

The world of maintenance in our pulp and paper mills (and downstream plants) can work the same way.

For instance, we have always designed pump installations in such a way that maintenance and replacement are labor intensive. There are bolts to mount the pump, bolts to mount the motor, in situ alignment, piping connections, seal water connections and electrical connections.

To change out one pump, there are multi-skills, or multi-craft, maintenance professionals, taking a lot of time at the site of the pump to do the change out. Often, one craft is idling, waiting for another craft to get out of the way so they can have their moment of glory. Motors and pumps could be designed in such a way that they are "plug and play." All of the connections, mechanical, electrical and so forth could be designed such that a robot could come up to the site of the pump, in a simple manner "unplug" the old motor/pump module and replace it with a renewed module. Should take about ten minutes. Then the module needing rejuvenated can be taken to the maintenance shop and renewed on the shop's schedule in a clean, dry and well-lit environment. In a shop bay where it is easy to access, parts are available and the whole assembly can be tested.

Our predecessors started bolting everything together in situ because that was the state of the art at the time. We have dumbly followed this practice (just like we continue to use cast iron dryers, probably the poorest material from which to make dryer cans).

Felt and wire installations fare no better. We have a bunch of people dangerously crawling all over the machine, swinging heavy loads in the air and so forth. The seamed press felt has been an innovation that has saved time, but not necessarily improved safety. The wire insertion units now offered by at least one major paper machine manufacturer have saved cost in construction and a little time in wire changes but has not necessarily improved safety. What if you could strip this clothing off as fast as impassioned newlyweds and replace it as fast as they then do when they decide to catch a drink in the hotel bar and notice it is fifteen minutes until closing?

We keep doing things the way the Fourdrinier brothers did because we continue to accept that the old ways are just fine. It takes daring, experimentation and a bit of risk taking to do things a new way. However, the one who adopts the new ways early will reap big gains while the competitors sit mired in the past. Don't be like them, become unmired.

For safety this week, the more we can disengage humans from working in dark, wet and cramped spaces under a time limit (the typical conditions we find in a shutdown), the safer we will be. It is obvious.

Be safe and we'll talk next week.


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