This page offers the personal comments from engineers in the Forest Products Industries. If you would like to contribute a brief essay on your decision to pursue an engineering career in forest products, please submit it to Jeff Lindsay for consideration.
Some good resources about careers in the forest products industries include the Recruitment Center at TAPPI.org, Paper University's page on paper careers (aimed at younger students), and the Biofuels Jobs Board.
Comments by Dr. Joseph LeBlanc
(This article from Joe LeBlanc is taken from the 1995 Heartwood newsletter of the Forest Products Division of AIChE. When Dr. LeBlanc wrote this, he was Technical Director, Union Camp, Savannah Mill, Georgia. Currently, in 2006, he is Vice President of Research and Development for Smurfit-Stone Container Enterprises. He was also a past Chair of the AIChE Forest Products Division.)
The forest products industry offers chemical engineers a stable alternative to the classical chemical products or petroleum refinery career choice. The forest products industry is moderately positioned in the US, market, with 15 or so companies in the $2 billion to $12 billion total annual sales range. The industry is very healthy, and is an industry that relies on economical feedstocks and competitive processing costs to maintain a profit margin.
A big advantage that forest products holds over most other chemical process type companies is that the feedstocks are regenerated, that is, the trees are replanted. This replanting benefits both the environment by increasing carbon dioxide consumption and the industry by perpetuating an adequate supply of feedstock. Also, it is important to note that cutting and replanting trees increases the net carbon dioxide consumption of the forest. A tree's maximum carbon dioxide consumption occurs during the rapid growth decade following planting. By managed harvesting and planting the net impact of the industry is positive for carbon dioxide consumption.
At first it appears surprising, but the forest products industry has many applications for chemical engineers. In fact the demand for chemical engineers in the industry is increasing. This is a direct result of an increased emphasis on environmental issues and the industries continuing emphasis on quality. In addition, the industry's growth pattern has prompted process modernization. The support of this growth requires continuous research and development for new products and processes.
The environmental opportunities for chemical engineers are obvious and well publicized, for example, recycle paper products, reduced air and water impact, etc. Opportunities abound for chemical engineers in areas like the manufacturing of pollution control equipment and the implementation of process improvements to increase waste utilization. These are clearly growth areas.
In reference to the modern production facility, today's new pulp and paper mill have to be seen to be appreciated. Modern paper machines may have 5000 control points or more! The new continuous dual vessel digester (plug flow reactors) are equally complex and are ideal career opportunities for individuals with chemical engineering backgrounds.
The research and development required to support these modernizations is a major strength of the industry. Clearly, a cooperative atmosphere exists between academic and corporate researchers on both domestic and international levels. Also, there is significant US government support for ongoing research.
On a personal note, I joined the industry with virtually no knowledge of papermaking process engineering. My background was traditional chemical engineering. Over a ten-year period, I have had an opportunity to work in research, corporate engineering, and kraft paper and board divisions. I firmly believe that forest products is an excellent career choice for the chemical engineer.
Comments by Lisa Swango
(Written when Lisa was with Kimberly-Clark Corp., Neenah, Wisconsin)
Coming out of undergraduate studies, I wanted to pursue a master's degree in something challenging, something with certain career opportunities, and something with diverse technical experiences. An M.S. in pulp and paper science certainly met these criteria.
The paper industry provides extraordinary challenges. Perhaps one of the key reasons is that the chief chemical component in any reaction is not a single substance--it is a wood fiber, composed of several substances and varying constantly according to wood species, wood age, climate, etc. And now with recycling, we are just as likely to work with fibers that have additional characteristics imparted to them by several different processors and consumers. The substances in wood fibers are so complex that many reactions are still hardly understood.
Certain career opportunities with a degree as "narrow" as a pulp and paper degree? Actually, the pulp and paper industry is constantly looking for excellent chemical engineers. Their sponsorship of various scholarships and grants financially demonstrates this need. Furthermore, the management in this industry frequently carry technical degrees. Thus, one may build one's career in either the technical ranks, the management ranks, or some creative blend of them both.
As for diverse technical experiences, the paper industry varies in several manners. Any particular process will involve several very different chemical reactions as well as many mechanical treatments blended into several complicated unit operations, any one of which could supply a life's worth of study. However, if this weren't broad enough, there are numerous product types. From heavy duty corrugated containers to office papers to personal care products, one can select any type of marketplace in which to do business.
A final benefit I considered only after joining the paper industry is that this industry exports from the US to other countries--it is an industry that builds our global economical standing! Any person seeking technical challenges, career opportunities, a variety of experiences, and the potential to contribute to a strong US industry should carefully consider the pulp and paper industry.
Comments by Jeff Lindsay
(Kimberly-Clark Corp., Neenah, Wisconsin)
How amazed I was to walk through the research labs and pilot facilities of the Institute of Paper Chemistry on my first visit there. As my future boss gave me an overview of the industry and the research areas, I realized that almost every engineering topic I had studied in school - thermo, separations, fluid mechanics, combustion, heat transfer, process control, etc. - had exciting and challenging applications in the paper industry. This point really hit home the first time I toured a real paper mill. Frankly, I began to feel disappointed that all my chemical engineering textbooks had neglected a huge industry that is loaded with chemical engineering challenges much more exciting than the standard petrochemical processes that dominate many texts.
I finished graduate school with a real interest in fluid mechanics, and was pleased to find fluid mechanics problems behind almost every door of the paper industry. The non-Newtonian fluid that is pumped more than any other in any industry is pulp slurry, which is also one of the most complex suspensions you will ever encounter. (Can you explain drag reduction in pulp slurries at high Reynolds number? Really?) Then we have black liquor and other complex fluids, along with coating color, glues, inks, gas and particulate flows, flow through fibrous media, etc., etc. There is so much to explore!
I have been involved in academic and corporate research in my 10 years since college, and have truly loved both worlds. The challenges are so many and the opportunities so great. It's an ideal field to apply chemical engineering skills and to develop new ones. I've had no regrets - except that traditional chemical engineering education neglects such an exciting industry.
To those exploring the paper industry, I particularly wish to suggest a look into the consumer products area. Many cellulosic materials are used in highly proprietary and competitive markets such as facial tissue and disposable diapers. The technology and research in such areas is often overlooked in universities, but is a fascinating area with many surprises and many opportunities for innovation and research.