Sappi, once synonymous only with large forests and paper mills, during the past 30 years has turned its expertise with wood to the fashion runways and even doctors’ offices.
At its Westbrook Technology Center, scientists research, test and manufacture textured paper products that can be used to embellish designer handbags, running shoes, wood veneer, privacy filters for windows and even imitation leather for cars.
More recently, Sappi’s texturing expertise is being tested in the medical world to create surfaces with miniscule textures on them. Potential uses are in doctors’ offices and in ambulances. The physical structure of the surfaces inhibits microbial growth without requiring chemicals. The textured papers also can be used to make tiny patches for patient diagnostics.
The reason for the technology focus: Sappi’s legacy commercial and publishing paper business is shrinking and will continue to shrink, said Beth Cormier, vice president of research and development and innovation at Sappi North America’s Technology Center in Westbrook.
“Sappi has used research and development on how to get into new markets,” she said.
That includes the textures at the Technology Center and packaging paper at other mills, including the Somerset Mill in Skowhegan.
The company’s revenues were $5.6 billion worldwide in 2018. Sappi North America has paper mills in Westbrook, Skowhegan and Cloquet, Minnesota.
In Skowhegan, the company invested $200 million last fall for a new machine that could increase the production capacity of the packaging papers, which Cormier said is a growing business.
But it’s in Westbrook where the cutting edge research is taking place for Sappi North America.
“We can do a lot with wood, manipulating cellulose, which is the most abundant polymer on Earth,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for the forest products industry to expand.”
One example is a collaborative project with the University of Maine in Orono, which has developed a tiny, paper-based medical test device that Sappi has worked to mass produce.
“Point-of-care diagnostics could make a difference in getting tested in your rural town instead of traveling one to two hours to a hospital,” said Caitlin Howell, assistant professor chemical and biomedical engineering at the University of Maine in Orono.
Howell has been collaborating to test several Sappi textures, including materials inside an ambulance, and the very tiny square of paper which, with special microfluidic patterns imprinted on it, potentially could be used by doctors to test their patients for a multitude of maladies.
“We can create these microfluidic devices on a mass-manufactured scale,” Howell said. “The next step is to finish the validation work and show the versatility of the two-dimensional pattern, that it is unlimited in what it can do. Then we’ll work with companies to make tests.
“Maine-based Sappi technology opens new avenues for medicine,” she said. “The technology opens new avenues to new types of applications we haven’t even thought about in the future.”
One problem in biomedical engineering, her specialty, is mass producing items that are tiny and usually made of expensive materials like silicon polymers and thin glass in the case of a point-of-care diagnostic test.
With the Sappi technology, the university has been able to use paper with microfluidic channels, or tiny patterns of channels for biomedical testing. Howell said Sappi has been able to mass produce the microchannel diagnostics using its paper technology.
Sappi uses an electron-beam machine to imprint patterns onto special paper called release paper. The release paper can be used to transfer those patterns onto materials used in shoes, bacteria-resistant surfaces and even into diagnostic devices.
Sappi has been working on the functional applications, such as medicine, for several years, but only recently has started testing the materials for potential commercial use.
The Sharklet paper, for example, mimics the surface of shark skin, which naturally slows the growth of barnacles and algae.
It is being tested now in doctors’ waiting rooms and inside of ambulances, said Cormier.
“We’ve been testing Sharklet for over two years and confirmed we can make a pattern to impede microbial growth,” she said.
Cormier would not reveal details of the company’s research or current products in which the more fashionable patterns are used, but they include famous shoe and couture brands, she said.
However, she said the company has been working with Boeing on a paper pattern for airplane overhead luggage bins and interior partitions that can bend light to give the cabin a certain hue.
Focusing on renewables
The Technology Center has focused on new product advancements, improving operating margins and reducing costs for the past 30 years.
“We put new materials into products for lower cost efficiency,” Cormier said. “While some materials are fossil-fuel based, we are looking at ways to get products [from wood] that perform like latex but are not made of fossil fuels.”
Cormier said a lot of the new graduates who interview at the company are interested in the sustainability platforms in its new products.
“It’s cool science,” Cormier said. “We put new materials into fossil-fuel based industries.
“There’s an image problem in this industry [paper mills]” she said. “We are starting to talk more about how we have the most abundant resource on Earth and are working with reusable materials.”
She said the texturing business mimics nature and uses wood, which is a renewable resource.
“We can replicate any texture,” she said. “You think your expensive sports car upholstery is genuine leather. Some is, and some is our textured synthetic leather. And we have a lot of wood grains as part of catalog.”
Competitors for specialty paper include Favini of Italy and Chinese companies. But she said there’s plenty of room in the market.
Besides, it can take 10 years or more, which is as long as it takes to create and bring a new drug to market, to create a new material and have it accepted by consumers, she said.
“People underestimate how difficult it is to develop a new material and then move it into a new market,” she said. “It can take 10 to 20 years. People need to develop trust in new markets. To build something new sometimes you have to destroy something old.”
While the high-tech fabrics in Westbrook grab a lot of attention, Cormier points to another new business that is much larger than the specialty market: packaging for foods or cosmetics.
The new business, which started a year ago, includes the thin boxes containing perfumes and some foods. Sappi makes the packaging paper in large sheets that an intermediary company prints logos on and cuts to fit for the final customer.
The packaging paper is made in Skowhegan and Minnesota. That paper includes grease-resistant papers used in pet food bags, labels on a food can or jar and paperboard for point-of-sales displays.
Currently, the company’s legacy graphics papers for commercial print contribute about 70 percent to Sappi’s business, but Cormier said she hopes the new businesses will increase to half of the business in five years. Among Sappi’s legacy business customers is Vogue magazine.
“In North America 20 years ago, 90 percent of what we did was printing, writing and commercial print,” she said. “Then globalization caused us to rightsize.”
The company also has its Verve dissolving wood pulp business, which is produced at its Minnesota mill and sold to customers worldwide. Cormier said customers turn the dissolving pulp into yarn, textiles and other products.
“This type of natural fiber is a great, sustainable alternative to polyester and cotton fibers used in textiles,” she said. “In addition to clothing, you may find this type of cellulose in food as a thickening agent and as a binding agent in pharmaceuticals.
“This is a large part of our diversification effort and a large part of the 50 percent of non-coated graphic products in the future,” she said.
A long history of research
The lab coats and plastic eyeglass protectors that researchers wear inside the Westbrook Technology Center may seem like recent additions to Sappi, but Cormier said the company had a few scientists conducting research since the mid-1800s.
Samuel Dennis Warren bought the Westbrook mill in 1854. Long before Sappi became known for its coated printing papers, in the mid-1800s paper still was made out of waste cotton rags.
By the mid-1980s, Sappi’s Westbrook plant employed 210 researchers, Cormier said, but that number is now 60.
“It’s a sign of a changing industry,” she said.
The S.D. Warren factory changed its name to Sappi in 1992. Around that time it also sold the vast woodlands it owned in North America.
Apart from the Technology Center, Sappi has research centers in Maastricht, The Netherlands, and two in South Africa in Pretoria and near Tweedie.