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Thursday
May242012

Sappi Westbrook: Papermaking on the fashion frontier

A venerable paper mill is the world leader in release papers

 

By Joe Rankin

Forests for Maine's Future writer

 

The names paper manufacturers give to the printing and writing papers that most people come across in their regular workday can be, well, a little boring. They're heavy on words like premium, or gold, gloss or matte, silk, or super. It is hard, after all, to try to distinguish something that is white and flat from something else that's white and flat.

 

But the names of Sappi Westbrook's papers are jazzy. Edgy. Hip. Playful. Sexy, even. Names like Disco, Gobi. Crinkle. Moxie. Aries, Quarry. Winner. Mojo. Splat. Sequins. Vibe. Pink Toby. Ambrosia. The list goes on.

 

That's because the venerable southern Maine paper mill isn't just selling paper.

 

It's selling textures. It's selling fashion. It's selling design. It's the world leader in making release papers that are used in manufacturing synthetic leathers and fabrics for everything from soccer balls to briefcases, athletic shoes to car wrap.

 

“We really are a specialties mill,” said Mill Manager Donna Cassese. “ We want to be known around the world as the leading source for functional textures. We're not selling paper, we're selling textures. That's the first thing to remember.”

 

The slogan on Sappi release papers' website sums it up well: Sappi makes the paper. Paper makes the texture. Texture makes the difference. Imagine the texture possibilities.

 

Sappi Westbrook Mill Manager Donna Cassese shows off some of the thousands of products made using the mill's release papers. (Photo: The Rankin File)For most people paper is a throwaway product, used to wrap a sandwich or feed the computer printer. Release papers are part of a manufacturing process. Basically they're papers that are spread with another substance, then the two are peeled apart. Sappi Westbrook's release papers, they're “printed” or embossed with original textures or designs that transfer to the fabric they're being used to produce.

 

“Our product is paper. It has a coating on it and an engraved design in it,” Cassese explains. “We sell a roll of paper to a caster, who pours vinyl onto it. Think of the paper as a mold. It's called release paper because you can release the vinyl from the paper and the paper can be reused.”

 

Release papers have been around for decades. These days they're used to produce PVC and urethane fabrics used in a zillion products that line the shelves of boutiques and big box stores alike. The market is global. And Sappi Westbrook is a key player in it. Cassese said the mill is the largest producer of release papers in the world, though the company doesn't want to publicize its exact market share.

 

One interesting fact: Less than 10 percent of Sappi Westbrook's sales are in North America; 60 percent are in China. Yes, China.

 

Not bad for an aging paper mill

 

The Westbrook mill has been around since the 1700s, when it was founded on the banks of the Presumpscot River.

 

In 1854, Samuel Dennis Warren acquired it for $28,000 and went on to build the biggest paper company in the country. The Westbrook mill has a long history of innovation. Among its firsts: it was the first to blend wood fiber with pulped rags to make paper, the first coated paper, the first two-sided coated paper, the first dull-coated paper and the first 100 percent fidelity release paper.

 

The Mill added the release paper business in 1947. It was new technology developed by a Connecticut company that was looking to make a better flowered shower curtain. Scott Paper Co. acquired Warren in 1967; in 1994 Sappi, a South African company, acquired Scott's Skowhegan and Westbrook mills. The company also owns a mill in Minnesota.

 

Sappi shut down the Westbrook facility's pulp mill in 1999 and in 2001 the mill stopped making printing papers and began focusing on the release paper business.

 

“We were never going to compete with the paper machines at Skowhegan, for instance, with the paper machines we had here,” said Cassese. “We're in a niche business. The value is from four to 10 times what printing and publishing would be. And so we are really in a unique specialty business that works well with the infrastructure we have here.”

 

Cassese grew up in the Bronx and came to the University of Maine to study forestry, without, admittedly, having a whole lot of acquaintance with actual trees. She loves to tell the story about a class where the professor gave new students a 10-question tree identification quiz. She put down “Christmas tree” for all 10. The prof gently suggested that she might want to consider another major, but she persevered. After graduation Cassese spent years as a forester in northern Somerset County and later in management at Sappi's Skowhegan Mill before taking the helm at Westbrook four years ago.

 

Cassese moves quickly through the labyrinthine mill complex like she's still striding through the woods, all the while admonishing visitors to stay within the lines painted on the floor, to watch their step in the doorways. Safety is always on her mind. One of her objectives at the mill is zero injuries. The mill is as neat as a pin, clean as an operating room.

 

Cassese gives off the vibes of a person who lives and breathes her work. She greets every employee by first name. She extols her “fantastic, crackerjack leadership team” and the mill's “very experienced, very dedicated” workforce of about 330 people. Many have worked there for 30 or 40 years. Some are the second, or even third, generation of their family to work there.

 

Today the mill has one paper machine, and it has one customer: the mill's release paper business. It makes the base paper, rolls of which are then trundled across the Presumpscot River to the other side of the mill, where it is coated and embossed, or textured.

 

Getting your head around release papers and how they are produced and used can be a little tough. But if you're reading magazines you're looking at coated paper. The coating on release papers is heavier, and has chemicals in it that allow vinyl or urethane materials spread on the paper to peel away and the paper to be reused.

 

Sappi Westbrook sells its release paper to “casters,” the people who are making the leather-like textured coverings used by manufacturers of everything from soccer balls to dashboards to coats and athletic shoes.

 

“We want textures that support both the functional needs of the customers and the aesthetic needs. We want something that looks nice, that would be hot on the fashion market, but it also has to work in their factory,” said Cassese. “Frankly that can be challenging for us. Because the surface chemistries our customers use are different in Europe and North America and China. So we have to have a very robust product. We also have to capture their business cycle. So if we don't get a texture in until next month we will have missed the spring fashion season.”

 

The mill has a slew of “evergreen patterns,” timeless textures that casters are always willing to come back to. But a lot of customers want new textures or patterns, and the mill creates them. They have created hundreds, and have a library of shiny, engraved embossing rolls. (Sometimes two of the more popular ones, just as a backup.)

 

Often the mill will create a new texture and then give the customer exclusive rights to use it for a period. After that time is up the texture can be used by other casters and manufacturers for other products.

 

Cassese holds up an athletic shoe. “This is Nike professional shoe. We designed the pattern for them, as an exclusive for Nike. It's called Camo. The neat part of the design is it's not only aesthetic, but it grips the ball better so you can kick it better. This is a very popular professional shoe. The design ended up going off the exclusive list because they want new stuff and the Chinese decided that it would make a fun flooring. So now Camo is being used for these courts where people are playing ping-pong in these gymnasiums. So it's gone from being a soccer shoe to flooring.”

 

Mike Knaup inspects a sample of release paper, looking for minute defects. (Photo: The Rankin File)Cassese then shows off a fancy, sleek Gucci jacket. She said a Sappi employee happened to be in New York City and went past a Gucci store and saw a beautiful jacket of super shiny leather. Looking closer, he realized that it was made using the Westbrook mill's release paper.

 

When you buy genuine leather, often Sappi's product probably had a part in creating it. Split grain leather frequently has a textured, or even smooth, vinyl or urethane outer finish bonded to the actual leather.

 

Sappi makes two grades of release paper.

 

“Classic” is what the company calls a “value product.” In making Classic release paper the engraved roll presses a pattern into the coating. But, because the embossing is done mechanically, it rebounds a little, so the pattern isn't as crisp, it loses some “fidelity,” as Cassese puts it.

 

In Sappi's proprietary Ultracast line of release papers, however, electron beams are used to cure the coating against the embossing roll. That means vinyl made using that release paper will have the exact same texture this year as it did from paper manufactured five years ago.

 

A worker at the controls of the Westbrook mill's machine, which makes the base paper for its release papers. In the background are finished rolls ready to be taken to the coating-embossing machine. (Photo: The Rankin File)Dale Johnson of Uniroyal Engineered Products said his company makes its trademarked Naugahyde artificial leather using Sappi release papers. “It starts out as a liquid and we pour it on to Sappi paper to bake it into a solid,” said Johnson.

 

Uniroyal prefers Sappi papers because they're “higher quality than its competitors. We are able to reuse the paper many more times than the other suppliers,” said Johnson. “Sappi seems to be on the cutting edge of developing new products and improving existing ones.”

 

It takes six to eight months to design a new texture and get an engraved roll made. “One of our primary research focuses now is on reducing that. We'd like to be able to do it in two weeks, get the idea and 'boom' get it out in the marketplace,” said Cassese.

 

Renee McPherson, a Sappi customer service manager, said in her job she can be in touch daily with Sappi sales offices around the globe. At the same time, she can get up from her desk and walk out to the mill floor to talk with the people running the machines. It allows her to resolve problems quickly, she said. And Sappi's North American research and development center is right next door.

 

McPherson said the Westbrook mill's edge in the market is its ability to beat delivery dates. Rolls of release paper are usually shipped by container ship to China, but the mill has been known to put a roll on a plane if a customer needs it yesterday.

 

Cassese said another edge Sappi enjoys is its patterns, and employees' ability to generate new ones. “We think we are the most fashion ready of producers.”

 

The market for release papers has been fairly static, said Bart Johnson, Sappi Westbrook's director of global sales. Demand for products made using release papers has been increasing as developing countries move toward a consumer society. But cost-conscious manufacturers of synthetic fabrics, especially in China, get the most out of their release paper, using it 70 or 100 times before it falls apart. Between runs workers using masking tape pull contaminants off it. That's possible only because of cheap labor. In Europe they might use a roll for 10 to 15 runs.

 

Sappi Westbrook is always looking for new uses for release papers, and emerging markets.

 

While the mill is imprinting textures on release paper, that's not all they're working with. The company developed a technique to imprint textures on clear film for use in privacy glass, a popular product in Japan. And it's done the same for laminate flooring.

 

Car wrap is a new use. In that process workers apply a textured vinyl covering to your car. It protects the original paint job while giving you a look you can't get with paint. A popular pattern is Alloy, said Johnson. It makes it look like brushed aluminum. Another new market is making textured wall coverings used in hotels, casinos, and karaoke bars.

 

The Westbrook mill is building on a long history of innovation and creativity. It may be the global market leader in release papers, but it's not resting on its pattern library. It is, as the Sappi slogan says, imagining the texture possibilities.

 

“At Sappi, innovation is a key priority,” said Cassese. “We continuously strive to achieve and surpass yesterday's goals. Expectations are high and we do our best to meet them.”

 

Joe Rankin has written about forestry and the forest products sector for more than 30 years. He always loves a good mill tour.