PPI Special report
Jan. 28, 2013
James Cropper is a thriving example of how to add real value to paper. This family-owned speciality paper business has built a global reputation for bespoke papers of the highest calibre and is a world leader in coloured grades. It was also Södra's customer of choice to put value chain cooperation into practice by trialling its new innovation in pulp.
Think of the world's major paper producers and the UK is no longer one that springs immediately to mind. Many of its once well-known names have been consigned to papermaking history, unable to justify their existence in an increasingly competitive global market. But tucked away in a picturesque part of the Lake District, is one name which is bucking that trend. James Cropper has been making paper since 1845. Now under the leadership of Mark Cropper, the sixth generation of the Cropper family, this speciality paper mill recognized that its future lay in value not volume in the 1980s. It set upon a strategy of bespoke premium papermaking, offering innovation, service and flexibility, and reinvented itself as one of the world's leaders in uncoated colored papers.
Part of James Cropper Plc, the company's tag line speaks for itself: Specialist Paper and Advanced Materials Group...Adding Value to Paper and Board since 1845. There are three divisions within the group: Speciality Papers, Converting and Technical Fibre Products. Although run as separate entities, the divisions are located on the same site, enabling staff from each to communicate regularly and pool their expertise. Indeed, cooperation with others in the chain and long-standing supplier partnerships is another key element of the company's success.
The paper division, James Cropper Speciality Papers, has a production capacity of 45,000 tonnes/yr on three twin-wire and one single-wire flexible paper machines (1.9 m deckle up to 3.2 m) ranging from 60 g/m2 to 4 micron board. It employs 350 people and exports to more than 50 countries worldwide, both private label and its own range. Bespoke solutions include the addition of texture, special effects and over 40 embossing standard patterns for applications ranging from high-end packaging to book coverings, laundry tags to text and coverings, and even barrel organ paper.
The mill prides itself on years of experience in color matching. Attracting, training and keeping a knowledgeable team of people who understand paper, color, quality and service is an intrinsic part of the business. "It's not unusual for staff to work at the mill for 20 years," remarks Adrian Dolan, product manager. "Barry in the lab has just retired after 40 years. There is a strong trade union tradition, enabling employees to work closely with management, and we take apprenticeships and management training very seriously along with our role in the community being situated on the edge of a National Park." The mill sits alongside the River Kent, a site of Special Scientific Interest, which is an important salmon stream and home to the endangered white-clawed crayfish.
Value not volume
Cropper has invested around £50 million in the past 20 years in a program of constant upgrading to meet a wide range of needs, including the second biggest guillotine in Europe (for sheets up to 3.5 m long) and laminating facilities up to 2,400 g/m2. But, says Dolan, there are no plans to significantly increase capacity any further - "just value". Much of that value lies in its human resources.
The mill can match any color. There is a choice of 3,500 shades in its library and a bank of 12,500 recipes, including 40 shades of black alone. Despite its huge range, Cropper employs two people full-time purely to create new color recipes and still manages to average 6-8 new colors every week for customers, who can order from as little as two tonnes.
Bespoke colors can usually be created within a day and new embossing requirements to bespoke patterns are turned around within weeks. All the PMs run the full color cycle, all are highly flexible to cope with small, bespoke orders, and they are staggered to accommodate short lead times (although, says Dolan, regular customers know which times of the month they are running their ‘reds and blues').
"Although we use electronic tolerances and standards, they're never a substitute for the human eye," says Dolan. "A customer has to look at the sheet before he/she can judge it, and therefore the final quality decision is taken visually. Likewise, bespoke dyes and pigments must be measured and added by hand to the stock, being a labour-intensive process in itself."
Jacqueline Redman, marketing manager, gives the example of a recently created leather-look paper bag. "A designer will come in with an idea in mind but no knowledge of paper, seeking, for example, a packaging for a new pair of shoes to be launched in Harrods, which might be worth £22,000. At this end of the market, there's no room for a bag which might lose its color in the rain. Our solution was a premium paper that looked liked leather which involved five different finishing processes. It was a challenging project but we learned a lot."
While the mill boasts all the relevant automation, it is still no substitute for experience and much of the color matching is done by hand under specific daylight conditions. It is this mix of continuous investment coupled with attention to detail from the human eye that Patrick Willink, operations director and grandson of the 1967 chairman, believes is key. "Too many mills of our sort aren't here anymore because they didn't maintain this level of investment," he reflects. "The future is largely dependent on innovation and our ability to develop functionality across applications."
Dolan, agrees: "In the 1980s, the company's vision and significant capital investment set us up for the future. We got rid of our MG machine, for example. God knows where we'd be now if we hadn't."
Customers such as Krug, Chivas and MOMA
Cropper today is very much at the forefront of its field. Its customers include some of the most well-known and luxurious brands in the world; Krug, Chivas, Selfridges, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Daler Rowney to name but a few. At any one time, the mill can have up to 400 active customers on its books with 20-25 key clients in any one sector.
With such demanding customers, Cropper in turn expects much of its own suppliers. Södra Cell is one of its principal pulp providers. "We're very fussy about our fibers and we rely on our suppliers for chain of custody and transparency," says Willink. "We select each pulp carefully and work closely with our suppliers to get the best outcome for our needs. There's a trial on today, for example, to enhance tensile using Södra Blue, a softwood we use for strength. We're doing that in cooperation with Intertek, a contact provided by Södra.
"We've used Södra to help us several times on various projects or to investigate issues we've had with clients, so it's a case of mutual cooperation for mutual benefit. We've done a lot together on issues such as measuring carbon footprint. This kind of data from suppliers is critical. It's absolutely key in the luxury packaging market where customers are continually asking for information, and environmental certification such as FSC and PEFC are crucial, as is transparency."
R&D is absolutely critical to Cropper's success and it has an extensive on-going product development programme, both independently and with partners such as Södra. A long-standing working relationship between the two, coupled with Cropper's reputation for innovation, meant that it was no surprise when Södra asked Cropper to run the first commercial-scale trials of its new bio-composite, DuraPulp.
DuraPulp is a mix of cellulose pulp and PLA, a corn-based polymer. Depending on the way it is processed, it can provide a sheet with all the environmental benefits of paper but with exceptional strength comparable with plastics.
Cropper was asked to run two trials. Its paper machines run a four-week cycle from white to black so Södra's team arrived on a Friday night to run a black DuraPulp sheet at the end of the machine's spectrum, and white at the start of the following week. Dolan was part of the team running the trials which went on right through the night with "energy drinks and Mars bars galore," he says.
"We both did our homework before the trials began," he recalls. "Adding color can affect performance so we did a lot of work ourselves before the trials to see how we could color DuraPulp, which dyes and chemistry worked best, and we talked very closely with Södra about the results. We ran the sheets on both twin and single-wire, with and without a dandy and under a variety of setups to optimize formation," he adds.
A 50-g sheet was run on the twin wire and then pressed together to get a 100-g sheet. Most of the black was reeled while the white was both reeled and sheeted (for printing) on standard paper cutters. Some was shipped to another Södra customer and the rest back to Södra's R&D team in Värö, Sweden.
"It was difficult to compare this to an ordinary sheet," explains Dolan, "because of the very long fiber - one and a half to twice the length of a standard softwood. It was challenging but the fact that we were able to run the sheet in such a short space of time is promising - it went surprisingly well for something so different and was testament to the good personal relationships between us and Södra."
Both Dolan and Willink believe Durapulp could prove a very interesting product. "This could well answer some of the questions we've been asking ourselves," Willink comments. "Interest in a super strong packaging material which could substitute plastics is high. We see an opportunity with Södra to find the best routes to market. There could be a whole host of applications, in everything from medical and food packaging, but approval for food contact is not a fast process. We're waiting to see what Södra would like us to do next. It's certainly in our thinking now."
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