Though there were plenty of press people in attendance, the conference organized by Gary Buccilli a few years back was not a press conference in the usual sense. The crowd wasn't there for the unveiling of a dazzling new product, the disclosure of quarterly earnings, or an announcement of a management shakeup. The folks assembled that day—representatives from paper mills, printing presses, and equipment suppliers—were there for a wholly different purpose: to find a better way to handle jumbo rolls of paper.
Unless you've spent time in the printing industry, you might assume that the biggest challenge in handling 11,000-pound rolls of newsprint would be their weight. But weight is not the problem; it's the paper rolls' extreme vulnerability to damage. If that seems a bit of a stretch for something destined to line birdcages, the explanation lies in the way the rolls are used in printing plants. Today's printers use super-high-speed four-color presses, which require flat, even paper—even a slight deformation will make color photography and artwork look blurred. And it doesn't take much to damage one of these rolls: place it on its edge, grip it too tightly, or—worst of all—drop it, and the roll will almost certainly be considered destroyed.
The conference was prompted in part by the 2003 acquisition of Chicago-based Stellar Distribution Services (Buccilli's employer) by the Canadian National Railway (CN). At the time it took over the facility, the Canadian National was well aware of the damage problems that plagued the paper-handling industry and had decided the time had come to do something about it."The damage issue was paramount," recalls Dan McAuliffe, territory manager for forklift truck maker Hyster USA. "Out-of-round rolls and edge damage had become really rampant in the paperhandling industry."
In Stellar, the Canadian National saw an ideal test lab for state-of-the-art handling systems. The facility, which is located right on the CN's tracks, specializes in the handling of paper and other forest products that arrive by rail from Canada, processing some 400,000 tons of paper per year. (The bulk of the paper moving through Stellar is headed to publishers of newspapers like the Chicago Sun-Times, although a small percentage ends up as fast-food containers for chains such as McDonald's.) Among other services, Stellar trans-loads paper rolls from railcars onto trucks for local pickup and delivery. It also operates a 126,000-square-foot dry-storage warehouse that's set up to store jumbo paper rolls, which weigh anywhere from 2,000 to 11,000 pounds. In all, Stellar handles 3,000 inbound railcars a year as well as 10,000 outbound truckloads.
Calling in the experts
For Stellar and its new parent company, CN, setting a goal was easy: Their objective was to reduce roll damage to as close to zero as possible. The hard part would be figuring out how to go about it. To take advantage of all the ideas and technologies available to his company, Buccilli, who is Stellar's general manager, called in representatives from all sides of the business: paper mills, printing plants, and manufacturers of forklift trucks and attachments.
At the conference sessions, Buccilli solicited information from his customers in the printing and publishing industry about what they required of the paper they used. He quizzed technical people from the mills on the optimum handling conditions for the paper rolls. Once he had all the information he needed, Buccilli and his team huddled with the equipment makers, which included forklift maker Hyster USA and forklift attachment suppliers Bolzoni Auramo and Cascade Corp.
Though the conference addressed everything from equipment use patterns to human behavior, much of the discussion centered on roll-handling technology, particularly the clamping devices used by forklift trucks to pick up and move the paper rolls. Unlike steel coils, which trucks grab by their centers, paper rolls are lifted via specially designed clamps that grip the paper itself. The challenge for forklift operators is to apply just enough force to keep the rolls from slipping but not enough to damage them. "Think of gripping an egg," says Buccilli. "You need enough pressure, but not too much. Remember Mr. Whipple in the 'Don't squeeze the Charmin' ads?" It's the same idea here.
But it wasn't all talk at these meetings. "There was a lot of hands-on, real-world activity too," reports Buccilli. "We'd get to a point and then we'd say, 'Let's go out into the warehouse and try that.'" In fact, it took months of constant questioning and testing before Buccilli and Stellar's warehouse supervisor, Jorge Andiola, were satisfied that they had covered all the bases. But the day eventually arrived when Buccilli, Andiola, and their team felt they had found a solution.
To no one's surprise, the solution they came up with centered almost exclusively on the facility's handling equipment. What the Stellar team proposed doing was essentially to take its existing lift trucks (which are all Hyster "boxcar specials"—lift trucks designed to move in and out of boxcars easily) and outfit them with state-of-the-art attachments. Specifically, the plan was to equip the trucks (whose capacities range from 6,000 to 12,000 pounds) with light bars and sensors to monitor clamping force and with new split-arm roll clamps. In addition, Stellar would install rubber pads on the gripping surfaces of all of the roll-handling clamps.
The idea behind installing the light bars was to give drivers a way of knowing precisely how much pressure was being applied by the clamps. With light bars, there's no need for guesswork; drivers can tell how much force is being exerted simply by glancing at a color-coded bar overhead that indicates the pressure per square inch: yellow for 5,000 pounds, red for 6,000, and so on. Because they can monitor the pressure, drivers can be sure that they're using the minimum amount of force for a roll of a particular size and grade of paper. The light bar itself is connected to a special pressure gauge (which was developed by suppliers Bolzoni Auramo and Cascade in conjunction with Hyster).
In the meantime, Stellar went to work installing rubber pads on all of the roll-handling clamps. The rubber pads offer increased friction on the gripping surface, which reduces the amount of force needed to lift the paper rolls.
The decision to use rubber pads on all of the clamps represented something of a break from standard industry practice. A lot of operations have been reluctant to invest in rubber pads because of the pads' reputation for wearing out quickly. Buccilli, however, says that's a misconception. The rubber pads on Stellar's clamps have shown tremendous longevity, he reports. "We haven't replaced a single pad in the two-plus years we've owned them."
Based on his experience with the pads, Buccilli says he thinks cases of premature wear have less to do with the pads' integrity than with improper use. Stellar restricts the use of rubber-padded clamps to handling the paper rolls, he says. But other operations aren't always so particular. If their drivers are using the padded clamps to open boxcar doors or move pallets and rail dock plates (the steel bridges between loading docks and the boxcars), he says, it's no wonder the pads wear out quickly.
Buccilli adds that regular calibration is an important part of keeping clamps in top condition. Stellar has purchased a test pad from Bolzoni Auramo, which it uses to calibrate the clamps to specifications set by the paper mills
On the edge
Along with the light bars and rubber pads, Stellar has also invested in split-arm paper roll clamps. Today, all of the company's roll-handling trucks are using these clamps, which let operators move two rolls at once, one stacked atop the other, without deforming or damaging either one. To visualize how this works, says Buccilli, "try picturing your thumb and two fingers when gripping."
Though it had a choice of clamp designs, Stellar deliberately chose a model that limited rotation to 180 degrees as opposed to designs that allow a full 360 degrees of rotation. It turns out that Stellar had a very good reason for its choice. Limiting the rotation to 180 degrees prevents trucks from placing a roll of paper on its edge, which is one of the most common causes of roll damage.
The split-arm clamp design is more commonly used in Europe than in the United States. "We manufacture splitarm technology for this kind of material handling in Finland," notes Ronnie Keene, Bolzoni Auramo's vice president of sales and marketing. In fact, he says, much of the damage-reduction technology Stellar is implementing in its operation is already widely used in Europe. Keene thinks other U.S. companies seeking to reduce paper-handling damage will end up following Stellar's lead—a move that he says could save them "tons of money."
As for Stellar's own damage-reduction project, the company's management says it's well satisfied with the results. It points to Stellar's damage-claims record as evidence of the program's success. A common measure of a DC's handling performance is handling-damage claims paid out as a percentage of sales. By that measure, at least, Stellar is looking pretty darn good. The typical figure for the industry is between 5 and 10 percent. For Stellar, it was 0.5 percent in 2005. Mr. Whipple would be impressed.