Tales from the NZ Paper Industry, #2

Tales from the NZ Paper Industry, #2

The big pulp and paper mills worked seven days a week, 24 hours a day. At Kinleith, on 361 days of the year there was a production meeting (the exceptions were Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Day and the next day). It started at 0930 and was always finished by 1000, usually 0940. It was super efficient, to find exactly what had happened in the previous 24 hours and ensure that events in the next 24 hours would be well coordinated.

In the centre of the room was a large table which could seat around a dozen people. The chairs had invisible labels, production units, not people. Whoever was representing No. 6 Paper Machine always sat at the bottom right corner, No. 2 Pulp Mill opposite them at the bottom left. The person running the meeting, usually the Mill Manager, sat of course at the head of the table. The Technical Manager sat at the foot. The walls were lined with chairs. This outer circle consisted of support staff: maintenance, technical, accounting, production planning, etc.

The pressure was intense, very palpable. The value of the production from the mill was more than $1 million per day (that’s 1980 dollars, probably three times that now). I used to spend my first hour at work preparing for the meeting, walking through the mill looking at log sheets, computer printouts, paper test results, talking to people, all to get a feel for what had happened in the past 24 hours. We had to be ready with instant answers for any one of a myriad of questions which could crop up.

That pressure took its toll. (One of the other paper mills in New Zealand lost several paper machine superintendents in succession, all to heart attacks. But they were having huge problems starting up a new paper machine at the time so I guess they were special circumstances.)

Humour was vital for the health of the participants. Everyone understood that (well, all the regulars at the meeting did) and there was plenty of it. One of the most important contributors was Ron, the Power and Steam Superintendent. He had a huge job. When his Boilerhouse went down, it shut down the whole mill.

One morning it was clear that the previous 24 hours had been a disaster. We’d lost 14 or 15 hours of production. “Tell us about it Ron” asked the Mill Manager with a face like thunder. “Well, first a shear pin failed in the scraper arm on the B side of the precipitater on No 4 Recovery Boiler, so we had to slow her back to avoid air emissions. That meant we got full of strong black liquor on the No 4 side, so we had to slow back No 4 Evaporators. When we tried to start up No 3 Evaps we got priming which caused a big black liquor loss…..” The saga went on and on. Virtually every unit in Ron’s patch had experienced problems and the resulting shortage of steam had shut the rest of the mill down. “So all in all, it was complete and utter shambles” concluded Ron.

“You can f**king say that again” said the Mill Manager, thinking of the massive financial cost.

“All right then” said Ron. “first a shear pin failed in the scraper arm on the B side of the precipitator in No 4 Recovery Boiler, so we had to slow her back to avoid air emissions. That meant we got full of black liquor on the No 4 side… ‘ and he kept on going, all the way to # 3 Evaps before the Mill Manager, couldn’t keep a straight face any longer. Then we could all laugh.

On another occasion, we been told that the Managing Director was down from Auckland and planned to attend the meeting. Indeed someone saw him walking down the path towards our meeting room. “When he comes in, let’s all jump to attention” suggested one bright spark. We all got ready. We had a good idea of exactly when he would arrive.

Sure enough, the door opened, we all jumped to stand at attention and in walked not the Managing Director but Ron! “As you were” said Ron with a perfectly straight face and with a wave of his hand walked straight to his seat and sat down, as if that was an entirely appropriate way for him to be greeted in the morning. It was a great performance which generated a roar of laughter. That then was what greeted the Managing Director when he entered the room moments later. I doubt whether anyone ever explained (he was not particularly highly regarded – ).

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