When I told my wife that I was going to tour a brand-new tissue paper manufacturing plant, she laughed.
“Like… toilet paper? Can that even be interesting?” She obviously didn’t think so.
Turns out, she was wrong. It was very interesting.
It made sense to invite me, I guess. I’m the editorial director of ISSA Media, and Sofidel — like many other manufacturers — is an important partner of ours. Add that to the fact that I live in Ohio and I am about 40 minutes from the Sofidel plant. An easy decision to make, plus they promised lunch. I’ve been known to like a good lunch.
Let the Tour Begin…
What I didn’t know was how immense and impressive this brand-new facility would be. I pulled in and explained to the friendly security guard that I was meeting two colleagues arriving by bus. I was told to park in the lot close by and I that I could then meet Micah and Iris at the help desk where the tour would begin. I asked him where this help desk was located, and that I was happy to walk to it. He chuckled. Pointed to a shuttle van that would take me there. What I didn’t know — but was soon to discover — was that the help desk was more than a mile away. You know, just on the other side of the building.
That’s right. It was at that moment I realized what was going on. Sofidel didn’t just make tissue paper. They make (notice the italics) tissue paper, a whole lot of it, and besides the ever-popular toilet paper variety, they manufacture several products, one of my favorite being high-quality paper towels, the kind that doesn’t tear apart when they get a drop of water on them.
All this in a plant a mile long and with some 1.7 million square feet of manufacturing space, providing employment to approximately 700 dedicated workers.
Not sure how important tissue paper has been over the years? Check out this article on the history of TP.
After donning a colorful safety vest, and being handed a bag with safety goggles, a hair net worthy of any lunch lady, and a few other odds and ends, we began the tour. With a manufacturing plant a mile long and I don’t-know-how-wide, if we were counting our steps on a Fitbit, the device would probably require a recharge before the end of the day.
Everything was neat and clean, and moving along with what seemed to me much like a full production line. Found out that they roll paper at close to a mile a minute, with this location host to the largest potential production capacity in the entire Sofidel empire, which spans across 13 countries worldwide.
I soon found out that consumer preference naturally plays a part in what the company produces. Seems Americans, according to the tour information, prefer one or two-ply toilet paper, while toilet enthusiasts in other parts of the world, such as countries in Europe, prefer three or four-ply toilet paper. Not sure why, and I’m not sure I want to analyze it further.
As the tour progressed, after what seemed like mile after mile, one visitor quipped as he stretched his tired muscles: “The workers obviously don’t need a wellness plan or a gym. They get a free workout every day.”
Then, to the right, we spotted a huge robotic paper roll mover, using laser guided technology, come quietly our way, crossing our path, on a mission to put something somewhere. Looked like something worthy of a Star Wars movie. Yes, robotics at work and at its best, moving a huge roll of paper that the Ohio State Buckeyes couldn’t budge even if they knew it would roll over a few Michigan players.
Learn more about technology in manufacturing, especially regarding automation and robotics.
Automation continued during the tour. One device — I believe they said it was the “Dragon palletizer” — moved and organized pallets of paper products.
Yet, with robotics in evidence, it was comforting to see that the cleaning crews were human, doing their job keeping the place clean and healthy.
The tour went on. We discovered, while there were no free samples offered to us visitors, paper did leave the plant, to the tune of filling up more than 100 trucks per day, distributing Sofidel products to various parts of the country.
I gave up my attempt to get some free samples when I was sternly told by our tour guide to “go into the restroom and grab a square.”
The Technical Side
Innovation plays a key role with Sofidel. And that’s important, with the goal the company has of eventually running 10 converting lines to create the final product.
To get this done, an automated “Smart Store Warehouse” will hold up to 50,000 pallets of product, engineered to save some 40 percent of space. Maybe Sofidel can lease some of the extra space to the Buckeyes to use as a practice field; the plant is that big.
The Sofidel plant uses a lot of water, as do most manufacturing plants, and we saw some cool processes of converting virgin pulp into paper. But they do their work to conserve as much water as they can. They are proud they use less water than other plants, to the tune of saving the quantity of some 400 Olympic sized swimming pools annually.
Sustainability and energy conservation is top-of-mind with Sofidel. The use of co-generation plants for the production of energy and heat, a system for recovery of heat generated by the hard-working turbines, is part of the company’s plan.
After learning all these details and gaining a much deeper appreciation for what one visitor called “a recession-proof product,” we went to lunch. Plenty of time to enjoy good food and network with other visitors, numbering a couple of hundred industry professionals coming in from all over the world.
After lunch, we all gathered for official speeches and presentations about Sofidel and especially its economic impact on southern Ohio. The pathway to getting a manufacturing plant of this magnitude into the cornfields of Ohio took some time, but it seems everything clicked into place, and the job got done. They are making paper.
The official ribbon cutting went well, with a pair of the largest scissors I’ve ever seen emerge from somewhere. The scissors did need a bit of sharpening, as it took a couple of tries to get the ribbon cut into two pieces.
It was a good visit, and I’m glad I was able to be part of it. If you ever get the opportunity to dig deeper into the world of tissue paper manufacturing, you won’t be disappointed in what you will learn.