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Reinventing a hundred-year-old company

Converting a paper grade pulp mill to meet the needs of a market as demanding as the dissolving pulp market was no easy task. It required great commitment from everyone who works at Caima to demonstrate the feasibility of creating products of higher added value, with the required degree of quality, and to face the challenges raised by a new and unfamiliar market.

Caima is a company that dates back over a century. Founded in 1888 as The Timber Estate and Wood Pulp Company Ltd., it was one of the first pulp production mills outside of Sweden. The first plant was built in the district of Albergaria-a-Velha, on the banks of the river Caima. A company can only remain relevant for all these years if it has a remarkable capacity to adapt to change to new markets, to new dynamics, and if it has teams of dedicated workers and a highlyqualified management team.

In the beginning, Caima produced pulp using pine wood. In the 1920s the Company innovated and started using eucalyptus wood for pulp; the results were so promising that at the end of the 1940s it stopped using pine altogether and decided to use exclusively eucalyptus. In 1960 Caima built a new mill in Constância. 2011 saw another change of direction when it stopped producing paper grade pulp and started focusing on dissolving pulp, and thus entered the demanding market within the chemical industry.

It all began in 2007 when the company decided to check out various different strategic options, aiming to increase value creation. The possibility of producing dissolving pulp was one of the options assessed. Technical studies were carried out to ascertain how dissolving pulp could be produced at the existing mill. A technical and economic feasibility study was started that year, which provided the guidelines to understand how Caima could produce dissolving pulp. The study was completed in 2008. We all remember the economic climate which pervaded the world and Portugal at that time.

The Altri group had other investments underway and the investment estimated in the report submitted to Caima was a large sum. The study ended up being shelved for quite some time. Two years later, in 2010, Caima’s management team returned to the study in order to find outwhether it was possible to follow its guidelines using the existing plant without making any major investments. The report pointed the way, and the first trials began the same year; first, changes were made to the cooking and the bleaching was tweaked, essentially to test the process’s capacity to achieve the desired pulp parameters.

Gualter Vasco, Caima’s mill manager, highlights that this work was carried out without support from outside of Caima. “We did all this with the effort and commitment of the teams and people who work at the mill. The skills and dedication of our employees was crucial to this project’s success.”

Tests began in 2010 and with the material produced the company began to test the market. The sales department, headed up by Agostinho Dolores Ferreira, managed to find a market for the pulp produced during this initial stage. According to Gualter Vasco, “They made some incredible work, considering that the pulp produced at the start was not in strict compliance with the typical specification for dissolving pulp. During that stage of the project we decided to label the pulp as semidissolving.”

Despite not being the desired end product, Caima was able to take advantage of the high demand resulting from the scarcity of dissolving pulp on the market. This climate helped to open doors to Caima’s pulp. The lack of pulp available meant that the tonnage price of dissolving pulp increased on the international market. Caima’s product was given a positive reception by the market. The comfort zone had been found. This was the right path.

Meanwhile, the company kept adjusting the process until it produced pulp which essentially complied with the dissolving pulp specification. This period of adjustment also served to find alternatives to the traditional customers of the paper grade pulp until then produced by aima. According to Gualter Vasco, “The Sales Directors performed exceptionally well, and the transition went very smoothly; some of our former customers are now served by Celbi and by Celtejo.”

Gualter Vasco, mill manager of Caima
Gualter Vasco, mill manager of Caima

Initial dissolving pulp production tests at Caima were developed with the effort, dedication and commitment of Caima's teams and employees, without any external support

Gualter Vasco, Mill Manager at Caima


The time came for a new change of direction for the company. In August 2012, Caima ceased manufacturing paper pulp to produce only dissolving pulp. This decision was taken when the mill had all the features of a paper grade pulp mill.

The investment made up until then amounted to reinforcing its capacity to produce demineralized water, which is crucial in cleaning pulp, to ensure the low calcium content required for dissolving pulp. Caima’s mill manager states “Until then we had invested little more than a total of 100 thousand Euros.”

From August 2012 onwards, the mill produced dissolving pulp keeping the plant’s paper grade setup, by running the process in a different fashion. In some ways it was less efficient, but it produced a pulp which was given a thumbs up by the market. In 2013, with the potential of the new product having been confirmed and the decision consolidated, the Altri group decided to invest in the mill. The ceremony at which the investment contract was signed coincided with the celebration of Caima’s 125th birthday. It took a total of 40 million Euros to adapt the production line to this new reality. There hadn’t been such a major investment since the mill was built. As people said at the time, it was like a re-birth.

This investment enabled the mill set-up to be changed to restore the production capacity which had been lost when switching from paper grade pulp to dissolving pulp. During this change, the company’s production had fallen from 115 thousand tonnes per year to 90 thousand tonnes per year. The changes made and the new equipment allowed for production of pulp which was in compliance with the standards and parameters demanded by customers. It also enabled plant’s capacity to rise back to its previous level, close to 115 thousand tonnes a year.

The 40 million Euros were used to rebalance the different areas of the plant. Gualter Vasco explains that it was necessary to restore cooking capacity. To achieve this, a new digester was installed. The capacity for evaporation – a vital part of any pulp mill – was insufficient and had to be increased by installing new evaporators. The project was started up in 2014 when these equipments were brought on line, and was completed in July 2015 with the start of the new bleaching plant. Bleaching is a vital part of this project, as it is where the most important parameters of dissolving pulp are assured. Two new bleaching stages were installed. The changes made at the mill also meant that Caima’s energy production and distribution area had to be redesigned. The steam network had to be changed. Dissolving pulp production consumes more energy than paper grade pulp production.


All construction works and changes were undertaken with the mill in normal operation and with minimal production loss

The entire medium voltage primary distribution network was changed. The company also took  advantage of this project to stop using fuel oil, switching the entire facility over to natural gas. The “ancient” auxiliary fuel oil boiler was replaced with a new natural gas boiler. The mill reconversion project finished in May 2016 when a new back-pressure steam turbine commenced operation, enabling electricity generation to be adjusted to steam consumption inthe factory.

Caima is energy self-sufficient. There are two biomass boilers on the site which allow over 250 thousand tonnes of forest biomass per year to be converted into energy, thereby contributing towards clearing brushwood and as a result lowering the risk of forest fires in the region. The excess energy produced is injected to the national grid. In practical terms, over 170 GWh of renewable energy are generated per year, of which around 95 GWh are injected into the national grid. This is more than enough to meet the needs of a city of 150 thousand inhabitants the size of Coimbra.

Gualter Vasco underlines that between the project starting, in November 2013, and ending, in May 2016, “all construction works and plant changes were undertaken while the mill was running and with minimal production losses. Only someone who is familiar with our mill and has an idea of thespace limitations that we face can  understand the complexity of an operation to demolish part of a building with machinery working inside…”. This feat was only possible “with the cooperation and commitment of a fantastic and very dedicated team who never doubted the significance and importance of this change”.

Finding new solutions

The annual production capacity of 115 thousand tonnes of paper grade pulp makes Caima a smallscale company competing in a global market where mills currently produce an average of one million tonnes a year of pulp. More modern units can go as high as two million tonnes a year. Because of their size, these mills have an inherent competitiveness which Caima was just not able to match. It was difficult to keep the company relevant in this market. It was just a matter of time before this situation would be reflected in the business sustainability.

It was time to diversify and dissolving pulp seemed to be an interesting option. According to Gualter Vasco, “Caima always sought to find market niches in which it could sell its product with added value to very specific customers. The majority – over 90% – of the factory’s production is now for the Asian market and is used to manufacture rayon viscose which is used by the textile industry, or in products aimed more towards chemical specialities, used in sectors as diverse as foodstuffs and cosmetics.

Also products like artificial silk, transparencies, films (LCD), photographic film, hairsprays and varnishes, automobile filters, cigarette filters, adhesives and emulsifiers for the food industry can be manufactured with Caima’s dissolving pulp.

Caima also produces 55 thousand tonnes of lignosulphonate, a product used in the construction industry as an additive to concrete, improving its characteristics and enabling it to be applied under more demanding conditions.

The biorefinery of eucalyptus timber, which is what Caima now is, can also produce chemicals such as bioethanol, acetic acid, furfural, natural sweeteners (xylitol, xyloses), protein, vanillin or lignosulphonate, all for the chemical industry.

Transforming Caima’s production capacity enabled it to diversify its end products and its customers, and to position itself within a market with a future.

Laboratory takes on new lease of life

When producing paper pulp, Caima’s laboratory focused on checking and controlling the parameters demanded to meet the needs of the paper industry. Now, with the chemical industry as its main market, the laboratory plays a decisive role. According to Gualter Vasco, “It is a cornerstone of our new era of dissolving pulp production.”

Caima invested in equipment and in human resources. “It’s an area in which we invested much in reinforcing skills.” He concludes, “it would be impossible for Caima to be a stable presence in the dissolving pulp market without the know-how of our laboratory team.”