Event report: ClayTech UK 2015

Clay Technology magazine
16 Feb 2016

From the quarry, through the kiln, to the trowel

Simon Frost reports from the UK clay industry’s annual landmark event.

Technical Matters was the theme of November’s ClayTech UK conference at the Staffordshire County Showground, where speakers from across the heavy clay industry discussed considerations from the quarry, through the kiln, to the end of the trowel. The technical, it is clear, matters at every stage, and the industry recognised its skilled workforce – the well-attended conference providing the perfect stage to award Technical Certificates in Clay Building Products and Quarry Managers’ CPD Certificates. 

Jeremy Elvins, Mineral and Estates Manager at British Gypsum, discussed the new tools that make choosing a site to explore for mineral deposits ‘easier, quicker and more user-friendly’. The Ordnance Survey’s OpenData system, DEFRA’s Magic database and the British Geological Survey (BGS) online open source database offer the initial information required on existing developments, constraints and lay of the land, while the BGS Geoindex system maps every borehole drilled in the UK. 

Elvins demonstrated how British Gypsum is now using these data sources to create colour-coded maps detailing factors such as geology, infrastructure, existing boreholes and various constraints on exploration in its land searches. A low-cost utility program, ExpertGPS, can be used to convert this data into Keyhole Markup Language – ‘the language of Google’, Elvins explained, allowing planners to overlay details upon Google Earth images, visually simplifying complex data for landowners and industry alike.  

Dr Rob Donnelly, Head of Estates for Ibstock Building Products and leader of the University of Derby’s Mineral Extractive Programme, looked at the next steps of procuring and obtaining permission to work minerals, designing quarries and stockpiling clay to produce high quality ceramic products. ‘We are geologically blessed as a nation in terms of brick clay,’ he said. ‘We have plenty to go at and we should make the most of it.’ Donnelly noted a site in Leicester that under Ibstock’s ownership has gone from field, to clay quarry, to landfill site and back to field, and is now the construction site for a state-of-the-art brickworks. 

Out of the quarry

Moving to the factory floor, Lee Allen of Michelmersh Brick Holdings Plc described the process of hand-making bricks to an audience accustomed to automated processes. He showed an almost hypnotic video of one factory floor employee forming bricks by hand – he selects a clot of clay from a conveyor, and places it on workstation covered in sand. He then pulls and rolls the clay to the desired rough shape before dropping the mould over it, cuts off the excess clay and turns the moulded clay out onto a drying panel. Allen estimated that the employee in the video, Andy, produces around 1,600 bricks every day.  

Bringing some colour to the proceedings, Tim Clay of Prince Minerals gave an interesting talk on the various processes and products used to produce shades of grey, khaki, red, yellow, browns and blues in clay bricks. 

Manganese can produce browns and blues in red clay and greys or khakis in buff clay, iron oxides produce red clays in both, while more exotic colours can be achieved with titanium dioxide (gold shades in buff clay bricks) and calcium carbonate products for yellow London stock bricks. He noted that no major developments in colouring had been made in recent years and encouraged the industry to ‘get adventurous’ and review its colouring methods.

Education matters, too

The keynote speaker, Dr Gerard Lynch (see page 14), certainly believes that the technical matters when it comes to education and training. His rousing talk promoted the benefits of traditional, time-served apprenticeships – the route that he is proud to have graduated through himself. 

Lynch showed some examples of poor bricklaying work that he believes graduates of modern routes such as NVQs produce. ‘For example, I walked into a hotel down in Sussex and saw some terrible brick-on-edge ramp detail. The bricklayer hasn’t got a clue how to set it out at all, and his brick-on-edge ends up with an area that would pool water, with a daft little cut that repeats at the top,’ he said. 

‘That bricklayer doesn’t know how to do it properly because nobody has taught him, so he’s just winging it.’ Lynch sent a ripple of laughs through the audience when he joked that NVQ might well stand for ‘Not Very Qualified’. ‘I do not want to be negative,’ he added, ‘but with the demise of traditional apprenticeships, those advanced craft skills have been lost.’

But Dr Andrew Smith, Programme Leader of the University of Derby’s new Clay, Cement and Concrete Technology course, described an exciting range of higher education routes being offered in partnership with the Concrete Society, the Institute of Quarrying and ICTa, with a teaching staff he describes as ‘The A Team’, offering ‘the thick end of 160 years’ worth of expertise within the sectors that we’re covering.’  

‘We heard this morning from Gerard about education and the apprenticeship route,’ Smith said. ‘We offer a Higher Apprenticeship – three years, with access requirements. What we’re trying to attract here is the same candidates that would be going to university.’ 

Smith echoed Lynch’s belief that the increasing number of young people going to university may not have been beneficial to industry. ‘This 50–60% aspiration of youngsters going through universities may not be the answer,’ he said, 

‘Higher Apprenticeships allow people who go into the workplace to come out with the same qualification [as they would through university], but with the advantage of their learning actually being in the workplace. So, it reinforces it – you get the experience. Recruiters take in graduates with an understanding and a particular level of learning, but the question is what else can they bring – what experience do they bring to their businesses? With the Higher Apprenticeships, it’s rolled into one package.’ 

The impressive roster of speakers also included Professor David Fishwick, a Consultant Respiratory Physician from the Centre for Workplace Health, who warned of the dangers of silica dust and measures to prevent exposure. Stephane Vissiere of Wienerberger discussed energy consumption mitigation in drying and firing, and Paul Redfern of Hans Lingl looked into alternative transport packs for bricks. Clay Technology will be focusing on all of these subjects in depth over the year. Not to forget the exhibition, where Peter Wegmann Ceramic Services, Shire Minerals and Machinery, Ceric, Mantec Technical Ceramics, Reymond Products International, Borregard, Norkem, Keller HCW and Sabo were among those representing the industry. If you missed it in 2015, you’d be well advised to catch ClayTech 2016, which ICTa is already busy planning.