Happy in the firing line - ClayTech UK conference report

Clay Technology magazine
10 Dec 2013

Is brick back where it belongs? Eoin Redahan reports from ClayTech UK.

Gone is the gloom of previous years. The fogginess that stops the eyes and confuses the feet has lifted. It’s brighter now. The heavy clay industry can see the way ahead.  

The speakers at the Staffordshire County Showground offered solutions. They didn’t lament the plight of an industry ignored. One delegate even praised the Government. ‘The Coalition has done a huge amount to help the UK housing market,’ said Mike Leonard, of the Modern Masonry Alliance, based in Leicester. ‘Four years ago, there was nothing said about our industry. Now, we’re centre stage.’

He credited the alphabet soup of Government initiatives – the Funding for Lending, Get Britain Building, First Buy, NewBuy, Help to Buy and Help to Buy II schemes – for the construction renaissance. In recent times, Leonard has also seen brick biting back. He has watched it regain ground lost to its great rival – timber cladding. His organisation bears testament to this, having achieved its highest market share in 10 years.

While Leonard predicted further growth for the next five years, he did speckle his speech with concerns. A cautionary slide of David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband flitted onto the screen as a reminder that a change in government may not spell bad news for the construction industry. ‘This is one to drop hands on. The housing industry is too important to use as a political football.’

Time out of kiln
Despite all the optimism, no heavy clay event would be complete without some talk about the energy question, especially as it accounts for about 30% of manufacturing costs. Dr Andrew McDermott, Technical Director of the British Ceramics Confederation, in Stoke-on-Trent, noted that the prices of UK gas and electricity were rising. He added that gas-intensive heavy clay manufacturers will be among the first ones to be switched off if supply becomes a national concern. With green charges and climate-related taxes also looming, the industry must find innovative ways to keep the kilns firing.

An exciting solution was outlined by David Pearmain, from Ceram, in Stoke-on-Trent. His team is developing a field enhancing sintering technology that could reduce production energy costs without fundamentally changing the manufacturing process. The technology involves applying a direct electric field (using bespoke electrodes) to a ceramic body during the sintering process. So far, the team has sintered a whiteware ceramic at 350°C below its factory temperature in just two seconds. The method could be used to reduce firing temperature and time. It may also negate the need for large kilns. As Pearmain noted, ‘If you can fire more quickly at lower temperatures, why do you need a 100-metre kiln?’

The task of the £2.5m project (including £1.9m from the UK Government) is to reproduce the technology on a manufacturing scale. To do this, the Ceram team has equipped a bespoke kiln with the field enhanced sintering technology. According to Pearmain, the technology could eventually be retrofitted into existing kilns.

From apprentice to artist
Another solution offered was less technically audacious, but no less necessary. With the heavy clay industry bleeding skills as the ageing work force nears retirement, there is a desperate need to recruit young talent. Jenny Conlon, Training Manager at KMF Precision Sheet Metal Limited, in Stoke-on-Trent, said her organisation will lose many employees to retirement during the next 10 years. ‘What do we do?’ she asked. ‘Bring in 16-year-olds. They’re like a blank sheet of canvas.’ KMF has invested big in this regard – more than £1m in the past four years. The rewards for this initiative are self-evident, with 90% of apprentices retained by the company since 2001, either as technicians, maintenance engineers, designers or operators.

With so much focus on apprenticeships, energy costs, new firing methods and construction statistics, delegates could have been forgiven for forgetting about the clay itself. That was until Geert Pruyn waxed effusive about the craft in brickmaking. The Vice President of Sales and Engineering for De Boer Machines, in LL Wijchen, in the Netherlands, said, ‘At almost every stage, we can influence how a brick will look.’ He spoke of mixing clays in the preparation phase, how manganese and sand are added to tweak the offering, and that a wet mould box will create a different product to a dry one. Technology, too, has broadened the palette, with electric charge powder guns spraying a new face for the brick and the speed of a machine’s throwing hand (the handformatic) adjusted to produce different expressions.

Many customers are now seeking bricks that give their homes a weathered aspect. Pruyn and his colleagues must adjust the process to achieve this effect. ‘We can sprinkle coal on the brick to give it a rustic appearance. And, when the brick is made, we can rumble and tumble them and pour cement over them, so they look old. Around 30% of the bricks in Belgium are rumbled with cement and other materials.’

Pruyn’s talk was a fitting reminder of the skill and thought that moves the craft. ‘The brickmaker is an artist,’ he said. ‘Who can make beautiful products, just like an artist.’

What they said about...

Energy costs 
‘Funding the implementation of measures is a challenge. It’s something we need to address.’

‘Badly designed policies damage key sectors. There is a complex soup of policies in the UK.’

The state of the industry 
‘People are buying into brick. We’re back in a big way and we’ve got to capitalise on that position.’ 


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