How Robots are Changing the Business of Toilet Paper and Diapers

In spite of all the changes brought on by digital technology, humans are essentially analog creatures. For evidence look no further than the consumption of toilet paper and diapers.

And while they are readily available and affordable in developed countries, that’s not always the case in the developing world. More than 2 billion people around the globe have no access to improved sanitation and basic hygiene products while another 800 million lack regular access to clean water.

What’s This About?

One way to address that disparity is to produce, sell, and distribute toilet paper and diapers more efficiently so that they’re both available and affordable to everyone. At Essity AB, Sweden’s leading producer of hygiene and health products and solutions, that challenge has fallen to experts like Robert Sjöström, senior vice president of Strategy and Business Development. The answers lie in the digital world.

At the recent ThinkX event in Stockholm co-sponsored by SAP and Singularity University, Sjöström described how Essity is automating its factories with AI-driven technology to enable waste reduction, use less energy, improve quality, and reduce costs by rethinking how human workers impact the production process.

“Digitalization will impact the entire company, and we expect to develop our employees to perform other tasks,” he said. “We’re using robotics to optimize processes and to eliminate as much manual work as possible.”

Let’s not forget that machines were not invented to lighten the load of laborers but to increase output and value. In fact, toilet paper factories are already completely automated. While human beings may oversee the production line, they are largely removed from the operation. From the first stage to the last, toilet paper is made by a series of ingenious machines strung together by a system of conveyors.

But today it’s not enough to just create value through growth. Today, value must be sustainable over time.

Why It Matters

“We create business value by meeting society’s most basic needs,” Sjöström says. “But the way we produce paper has not changed for hundreds of years.”

Wood chips are still processed into pulp that’s dried and formed into sheets, a process that hasn’t changed fundamentally since the company was formed. Originally a forest products company with roots in the 1850s, the new name Essity was implemented last year symbolizing essentials that are necessities. The fiber for Essity’s products comes from responsibly managed forests with a respect for biodiversity and fair labor conditions.

“What is changing is how we process materials in a more sustainable way and how we use technology to be more efficient,” Sjöström says.

Such changes require an innovation process that is deeply embedded in a company’s strategy and business model. At Essity, innovation activities are driven by market trends, customer and consumer insight, new technology, and new business models, which all require new skills and mindsets. The role of human workers will shift away from manufacturing and toward running the business.

“We will create new positions in the company such as digital analysts and robotic experts, so we’ll need to recruit more people with strong mathematical and digital capabilities. It’s also very important that our IT people have a better understanding of the business,” says Sjöström. “Management must stop thinking in a linear way about budgets and start thinking about how to train our brains to be more open minded, to better understand data, to be less emotional and more fact based.”

And while it’s true that machines can be more efficient than humans, Sjöström believes the human touch will be more important than ever.

“Our products will continue to be used in a traditional way in homes, but with machines taking care of processes in hospitals, for example, instead of running around looking for supplies or filling out paperwork to maintain stocks of hygiene products, nurses will actually have more time to care for patients at the bedside where it really counts,” he adds.

Good for People, Good for Business

New technologies like machine learning are making it possible to automate routine tasks, which means efficiency will no longer be a differentiator. What will make a difference to the long-term relevance of a company is its reason for being. It’s no coincidence that Essity has made it a mission to improve health and well-being through personal and professional hygiene solutions in full alignment with the global United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Essity’s rigorous commitment to the SDGs means it aims to improve the well-being of people all over the world and create business opportunities as well. For example, Essity is helping to stop the spread of disease with hand washing programs in schools and to break taboos about menstruation and incontinence in collaboration with organizations like the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC). At the same time, its commitment to sustainable supply chain opens new opportunities for suppliers in all areas from fiber sourcing to water and waste management to climate and energy.

And last, but not least, employees feel good about their work because they understand their role in making the world a better place.