BUCKSPORT, Maine — The old No. 1 paper machine at the Verso mill is doing different duty these days.
The machine no longer produces the lightweight coated paper that remains the staple of the mill. It now turns out a noncoated specialty paper for a niche market.
“That machine is one of the oldest machines currently in operation in North America,” Verso spokesman Bill Cohen said Thursday. “It is an old, slow machine.”
One option would have been to shut the machine down, which likely would have resulted in layoffs. Verso officials, however, looked for a way to keep the machine producing, Cohen said.
“Rather than doing anything else, we made the commitment to try to find a way to keep the machine profitable by doing something else,” he said. “At this point in time, there will be no downsizing and no lost jobs.”
The company notified the coated paper market that it would be taking approximately 80,000 tons of paper — the annual production from the No. 1 machine — out of the light-weight coated inventory and begin producing specialty paper.
The machine was down for maintenance last month and when it came back on line, it began producing the specialty papers. Because the market is so competitive, Cohen declined to discuss exactly what type of paper the machine is turning out or who the potential customers are. He said, however, that the machine has produced specialty paper that already has been shipped to potential customers.
Cohen also declined to discuss the impact the change might have on the mill’s bottom line.
“The goal is to replace that tonnage,” he said.
The change to the specialty paper did not require a capital investment at the mill, Cohen said. Unlike the newer machines, the coater on the No. 1 machine is located outside the machine, which made the conversion easier.
The process will use the same species of wood as the coated paper operations, which will continue on the other machines at the mill. The change did require the mill to use a different “recipe” for the specialty paper. Cohen said the millworkers have risen to the challenge of trying something different.
“The folks in Bucksport have been masters of the science in making lightweight coated paper; they’re world-class in that market,” he said. “What we’ve asked them to do is to experiment with making a different paper, using a different recipe. And they have learned how to produce some of those specialty-grade papers.”
Meanwhile, the mill has been working on construction of a new wood slasher that will allow the mill to accept tree-length logs. The slasher was part of a new wood yard project the mill started several years ago, but was dropped from the project when International Paper owned the company.
According to Cohen, Verso officials re-evaluated the $3 million-plus project and decided to move ahead with it.
“This allows us to go to tree-length wood,” he said. “It’s a significant piece in completing that [woodyard] project.”
The ability to accept tree-length wood will mean the logs will require less handling by loggers who sell wood to the mill. It will result in less fuel used and less carbon dioxide production.
The mill process still requires 4-foot-length wood, Cohen said, which is what the existing debarker and grinder can handle. But the slasher will cut the tree-length logs into 4-foot sections at the mill, he said.
That project is expected to be completed by the end of the year.