Message from the Director

The WMU Paper Pilot Plants had a strong year of business, with customers being able to travel again and plenty of great project work. We are again in the process of hiring two new operators, getting set up to be a certified lab to test for compostability, and have added a molded fiber machine to our pilot scale offerings. These additions will help us broaden our offerings to industry and bring more clients here to do their R&D. The diversification of our business is also a good thing, as we see an ebb and flow to each of the pilot areas. We were able to once again offer Fiber Recycling Course and Paper Coatings Course this past summer, after missing two years due to covid. Both courses were highly successful on all accounts. They both sold out and have a waiting list for 2023, when both courses will run again. All in all, another great year.
Go Broncos!

2022 Results

2022 was another strong year of business for the pilot pants. The backlog was strong but we were able to maintain a reasonable lead time for most of our clients. The addition of new employees and process improvements have allowed us to get more done in a day, and also add a second shift or second operation on certain days. Maintenance costs are up over the last few years due to increased workload on the assets as well as age. We are in the process of getting a major rebuild done on our rewinder, adding dataParc, and have ordered a new scanner for the paper machine. The new paper machine continues to run extremely well, and often. The coater business was most adversely affected by the pandemic but continues to pick up, while the recycling plant continues to stay busy with a steady stream of non-wood and recycling projects.

Recycle Operations

Corporate sustainability goals push the supply chain to innovate and increasing legislation against single-use plastics is driving many fiber-based alternatives forward. We get the privilege of seeing and testing many prototypes while in development and then the satisfaction of seeing some of them make it into the market. We had been getting asked more and more about compostability from our customers. There is a backlog in testing and very few certified labs. Many fiber-based items become food soiled during use, and compostability becomes the best option. This will be a great addition to our services and help meet the needs of the industry to help it move forward. The certification process has proven slow and difficult, but we are up and running and hope to be BPI certified by 1Q23.

Coater operations

Our pilot coater continues to see steady business in two main areas; recyclable barrier coating development and fluorochemical replacement. There is also significant work in heat-sealable coatings, as many flexible packaging products look to become more sustainable (recyclable, compostable, sustainably sourced, etc.). We continue to take on more lab-scale coating work to create some coater business by graduating them from bench top to pilot scale. We are working on several tolling opportunities for the coater as well. With 2 more employees, we can start running multiple operations simultaneously (i.e. coater and recycling plant).

Pilot paper machine

Recent work has been focused on a few main areas: super specialty grades, fluff pulp, and alternative fibers (cotton, hemp, wheat straw). Yes, we make production scale quantities for several repeat customers! We call these orders of 1-5 tons our “super specialty” grades. The multi-ply capability of our machine is also being used more and more. The machine is a dual fourdrinier, and we have added a trolley system that can hold a 3rd headbox, slot die, spray booms, or anything else our customers can dream up. Great capability! One of our multi-ply paperboard customers reported that he took a sample of the paper off of our machine back to his mill, and they could not tell the difference from their production (formation, density, and feel all similar!). Some cool projects are happening here that I hope to someday share with the world. Paper manufacturers, chemical suppliers, and start-up companies alike continue to use the machine for early-stage product development and scale-up. We continue to be engaged in the NextGen Cup Challenge, wherein we are named as a critical resource and have a seat on the technical committee. NextGen Cup was founded by McDonalds and Starbucks with the stated goal to ‘bring fully recoverable hot and cold fiber cup systems to a global scale.’ This is a great fit for us as we can help with the coating development on our pilot coater and then test the fully converted cups for repulpability/recyclability.

Molded Fiber

We see molded fiber as a rapidly growing part of the packaging and consumer goods of all types. We refer to it as 3D papermaking due to the very similar processes. Stock preparation, forming, pressing, and drying are the key components of molded fiber production. The current challenges with wet molded fiber include cycle time and barriers. Coating a 3D surface is truly a challenge, but strides are being made. Time magazine recently named the Zume and Solenis PFAS-free molded fiber packaging as one of its Best Inventions of 2022! We recently started a Kiefel wet molding pilot scale machine here at WMU. The KFT Lab V03 is up and running and should be ready for customer trials by 1Q23. Areas of trial interest include alternative fibers, wet-end chemistries, coatings, mold (drainage and formation) improvement, and moisture reduction (cycle time improvement). I was able to take two members of the pilot plant team with me this fall to visit Kiefel’s NA headquarters in NH for their “Tech Days” event. We were able to meet their team, see a molded fiber machine in operation, and I also presented on recyclability and compostability. I have also been named co-chair of the newly formed Molded Fiber committee within Tappi, alongside Joe Grygny. If you know molded fiber, then you probably know Joe – the IMFA (International Molded Fiber Association) lifetime achievement award is named after him! It is a great honor to serve alongside Joe and start to build a formal platform of learnings and best practices for the molded fiber community.

Thank you all for your support of our students, program, and pilot facilities.

Lon Pschigoda 12