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“Swedish fiber companies have a mindset that is progressive and innovative – which I why they have weathered the changes in the market so well.” Mikael Leksell, CEO of Process Solutions

Swedish fiber industry

First movers

Despite facing the challenges of market disruptions and global competition, the Swedish fiber industry remains one of the powerhouses of innovation, says Mikael Leksell, CEO of Process Solutions at Siemens AG.

Mr. Leksell, Sweden is home to some of the biggest and most renowned global fiber companies. What makes Sweden so well suited to fiber production?

Mikael Leksell: What makes Sweden so unique is not only an abundance of raw materials and resources, but also an excellent infrastructure in terms of transport, electrification, and communication. On top of that is a highly skilled workforce with vast expertise in the fiber business: Swedish fiber companies have a mindset that is progressive and innovative and they have the skills to act on this approach – which is why they have weathered the changes in the market so well.

What changes are we talking about?

Mikael Leksell: Paper mills were among the first industries to feel the ­impact of digitalization – their newsprint business saw a massive decline with the advent of the Internet. At the same time, the market for paper board, food and beverage packaging, and fiber-based hygiene products grew enormously due to changing consumer behavior, especially in Asia. Companies had to rethink their business models and rebuild their paper mills – and all within a very short time. The Swedish fiber industry was among the first to act on this change with both machine builders and fiber companies using advanced technology to increase flexibility and efficiency and to optimize their manufacturing processes in order to remain competitive.

What does the new fiber business look like?

Mikael Leksell: The market has become a lot more global and diverse. This is especially true in the food and beverage industry where fiber products are tailored not just to enable convenient handling, but also to offer a substitute for traditional packaging – for example, to replace plastic wrapping. Cellulose-based packaging not only comes from a renewable resource, but it can also be modified to help preserve food better, thus addressing both the issue of sustainability and food safety. Fiber products provide a more sustainable source for the textile industry when replacing cotton, which is often grown in competition with food crops. And last but not least, trees can also be a source for a whole range of new products – from biofuels to green chemicals. Scandinavia and the Swedish fiber industry in particular are driving forward these new applications and using automation technology and digital tools to upgrade their plants and businesses accordingly.

And now we are talking about the next challenges: how to securely and productively bring the assets in the fiber industry to the Industrial Internet of Things.
Mikael Leksell, CEO of Process Solutions, Siemens AG

              

What opportunities do you think this provides for Siemens?

Mikael Leksell: I believe that we can offer a lot of tools to benefit the fiber industry: we are one of the largest global industrial software companies and we offer wide-ranging industry expertise in automation and  electrification. We can support the fiber industry with tools for the remote monitoring of operations, optimization of lifecycle and asset performance through digital plant models, and for streamlining design and engineering processes – and we have an equally strong footprint in the physical world with a large installed base and a broad portfolio of products for automation and electrification, as well as a global network of fiber industry experts. So we are in an excellent position to offer solutions that will help the fiber industry exploit the opportunities of digitalization while securing investments and offering real value. We work closely with the leading OEMs in the fiber industry both in Sweden and across the globe to integrate equipment design and electrical and automation systems in order to create an optimal solution for each application – and this value-driven approach is highly appreciated by the industry. We have won several large projects in Sweden because we were able to demonstrate that our solution makes the biggest contribution to the lifecycle value of the plant.

Will the market changes also ­impact your fiber business?

Mikael Leksell: Definitely. The Swedish fiber industry is ready and willing to adopt innovation and promote change in its operations, but we need to be able to prove the benefits. And this is where we can again use our broader industry and technology expertise. It is not just about having the right tools and products but rather about being able to support the fiber industry's goals in terms of time to market, quality, safety, availability, and reliability. When we introduce new technologies, we need to be able to show the value they can offer in these key areas. And together with the fiber industry, we have already achieved a lot. I started my career in the ­fiber business at seventeen, working as a nightshift operator during my studies in what was then a largely analog plant with local control. Today, you can monitor and support the operations of a paper mill in China from a central control room in, say, Stockholm – the changes have been extraordinary. And now we are talking about the next challenges: how to securely and productively bring the assets in the fiber industry to the Industrial Internet of Things, how to provide smart tools for decision support and process improvement strategies – and how to ensure that the intellectual property of our customers and partners remains secure in an increasingly open and collaborative world. And again, Sweden is in a good position thanks to its skilled workforce and strong IT industry. I am excited to see what the future will bring.

Mr. Leksell, thank you for speaking with us.

Picture credits: Siemens AG