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Harold and Bill began their careers in brick machinery with Paschal Machine Co. in Siler City, Bill, principally a designer, and Harold, first a sales manager and later a senior officer, worked for Paschal from 1963 to 1974 and 1962 to 1975, respectively.
After leaving Paschal, Harold and Bill formed Basic Machinery within the constraints of individual non-compete agreements. The newly formed company served principally as a commissioned sales arm for several OEM providers to the brick industry, including Pearne & Lacy Machine Co., Los Angeles, Calif., which built automated machines for the clay sewer pipe and brick manufacturing market. Among these was the widely recognized Dinosaur Brick Setting Machine, which had been well received by brick makers eager to expand production, automate their plants, improve product quality and significantly reduce labor costs. Working out of Harold’s house, the company had a secretary and one designer, in addition to Bill.
Within several years, Paschal Machine Co. had dissolved and the non-compete agreements had expired. Harold and Bill expanded the scope of their work. In addition to obtaining orders for machinery, they also established a steel fabrication plant to make many of the steel structural components used in the brick machinery and related bulk material handling and moving assemblies. It was during this time that the company designed and built its first material reclaimer.
Expanding the CompanyIn the late 1970s, the management of Pearne & Lacy’s parent company decided to sever its relationship with the Milholens and rely on repeat customer orders and an inside sales staff. Pearne & Lacy’s sales and profit levels declined considerably. The other, more profitable divisions of the parent company were in the aircraft parts business, and the dissimilarities were such that Pearne & Lacy received less and less support. Its management eventually decided to approach the Milholens about selling the company, and in 1980, the Milholens purchased the proprietary product design and other assets.
Shortly afterward, the Milholens expanded their Siler City production plant to build machinery from the ground up. With its expanded manufacturing and design capabilities, along with the broader proprietary product line, Basic was able to bid on larger contracts. Soon after the Pearne & Lacy acquisition, the company secured a $2 million contract with Michigan Brick Co., which included buildings for a kiln and clay grinding plant, along with conveyors, a grinder and a reclaimer.
During the recession of the early 80s, the Milholens made several strategic moves. The first was the commitment to design new products for the brick industry, including a special shapes machine. “Before the shapes machine, companies had to hand cut every shape that they made,” says Bill Milholen, who is now the company’s CEO. “It’s a small machine, but it makes the job of making shapes more efficient and cost effective. Twenty years ago, a lot of brick manufacturers didn’t want to make shapes because it was a labor-intensive process, so the introduction of a shapes machine really helped the industry promote the shapes market.”
The company also developed a brick saw, used for sawing fired brick into shapes and smaller sizes for sample boards. Rather than having a person manually push the brick through the saw blade, the blade is totally enclosed, and an automatic turntable is used to transfer the brick to the blade. This ensures the safety of the sawing operation and a superior finished product.
A bulk material reclaimer and a twin roll crusher were also developed by Basic in the ’80s to enhance the clay preparation stage of brick manufacturing. The reclaimer enabled companies to store thousands of tons of material in the clay preparation stage. The system automatically pulls material back and feeds it to a surge bin, which, in turn, feeds the brick machine on demand. This gives brick manufacturers the security of knowing that a reserve of prepared material is available in case a machine breaks down in the grinding operation. “Without the prepared material storage, manufacturers used to have to work all night long to get a machine going so they could make brick the next day. Now they don’t have to worry about that situation,” says Bill Milholen.
In another strategic move, Basic began to diversify itself in the face of lowered demand for brick products brought on by the recession. It established its Industrial Equipment Division to sell its products outside of the brick industry to companies such as R.J. Reynolds, the U.S. Navy, Holnam Cement and other large concerns for applications as diverse as paper recycling and cogeneration—industries that used much of the same equipment found in the brick industry. In fact, the company's single largest project outside of the traditional brick industry was the equipping and construction of a pet litter plant for a dominant pet products company. Since clay is the principal raw material used to make pet litter, Basic was approached by the customer to enlist its support to design clay crushing, drying, screening, and processing equipment for the new plant. As the relationship grew and the customer came to recognize that Basic had considerable experience in designing, building and equipping clay grinding plants for the brick industry, Basic was asked to build much of the processing machinery and material handling equipment for the project. Finally, the customer designated Basic as its general contractor to manage the project as a “soup to nuts” turnkey arrangement Although the sheer size, complexity, and time frame of the project was a strain on Basic’s physical and human resources, the company broke ground in 1996. Sixteen months later, in August of 1997, the project was commissioned on time and helped solidify Basic’s reputation as a full service provider.
Meeting Manufacturing NeedsIn 2000, Basic Machinery celebrated its 25th anniversary. Today’s brick industry comprises larger, more financially savvy firms, and the trend toward automation has increased. A modern kiln can fire 60 to 100 million brick per year when incorporated in a modern plant environment, compared to older plants that typically fired around 2 million brick. Although this trend has attracted many other suppliers to the brick industry, Basic’s name, reputation and longevity make it one of the preferred providers of clay processing and brick handling equipment. The company manufactures equipment to move the raw material from the receiving area to hoppers, then onto apron feeders and to a crusher, then onto conveyors, where it proceeds to the grinding room equipped with hammermills, to vibrating screens, and finally to a storage area often equipped with a reclaimer. Each of these products can be custom-designed, manufactured and installed by Basic. Additionally, the company holds general contracting licenses in several states and can provide a total turnkey service for brick manufacturers.
“Over the years, we’ve become experts at designing, building and commissioning grinding plants for brick companies, and we’re developing increasingly sophisticated control technology to automate the processes throughout the brick plant,” says Bill Robinson, the company’s president. For instance, in 1999, the company completed installation and startup of an automated grinding plant for Acme Brick Co. in Elgin, Texas. (See sidebar: Acme Plant Gets Grinding Makeover.) The plant extends the concept of cutting edge automation to the bulk material handling and preparation side of the production circuit. Through this technology, the entire grinding plant and all of the systems in it can be controlled with the click of a mouse through a computer workstation.
Additionally, working with Boral Bricks, Basic has recently expanded its product offering with the addition of a line of all-electric automatic transfer cars to move dryer and kiln cars around the brick plant. Unlike a hydraulic car system, which uses oil and often creates a hazard on the plant floor through oil leakage, the new cars offer a completely clean, efficient and smooth-running operation. “The electric cars get rid of the environmental and safety problems often found with hydraulic systems,” says Bill Milholen.
Yet another brick manufacturer has contracted with Basic to develop a robotic setting machine for a highly complex setting pattern. The new technology will be designed to operate with the more conventional types of equipment already in place in the company’s production line, including cutters, marshalling equipment, inverters and stackers.
Despite its equipment innovations and engineering expertise, the company works hard to ensure that the manufacturers’ needs are always at the forefront in any turnkey operation. “We don’t just build grinding and material handling plants and deliver products—we also form a consultative relationship with the customer to give them what they want, and maybe even find a better solution than they had in mind to start with,” says Robinson. “In some cases, this may mean supplying them with custom-built equipment from our own manufacturing facilities, but in other situations, the manufacturer might specify another brand of equipment. We’ll work with them to use whatever screens or crushers or hammermills or grinding equipment they prefer.”
Although there is an industry trend toward more complex systems and equipment, the company takes a simplified approach to concept development and system design. “We believe that the most successful designs are those that meet the manufacturer’s requirements with a minimum of complex mechanisms and maintenance-intensive equipment,” says Pete Barger, director of engineering. “This approach typically results in the manufacturer’s expectations being exceeded relative to machine capacity, maintenance, downtime, operating costs and overall system efficiency.”
“No two brick plants are alike,” adds Bill Milholen. “Every turnkey installation requires that we work closely with the customer to satisfy their needs and offer a customized solution.”
Looking Toward the FutureBasic continues to focus on the domestic brick market, but it has also expanded globally, selling large-scale systems to countries such as Russia, Uzbekistan, Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, Sri Lanka and Botswana. Although the company does not manufacture kilns or extruders, it does provide an increasingly broad product line, including kiln car moving equipment; automated brick setting machines; and unloading, dehacking and packaging machinery. It also offers overhaul, repair and upfit services for existing facilities and machinery.
For Basic Machinery, the key is offering the right balance of products to help brick manufacturers remain profitable. “We believe in providing a well-reasoned balanced of industry-proven conventional technology coupled with industry-leading new technologies, such as robotics, photo-optics, servo drives and cutting edge controls. It’s all about giving the industry the most appropriate and effective solutions,” says Barger.
Editor's NoteAn article on Acme Brick’s new Elgin, Texas, grinding plant appeared in the May 2000 edition of Ceramic Industry’s Brick & Clay Record. The article can be found online under “Editorial Archives.”
For More InformationFor more information about Basic Machinery and its manufacturing solutions, contact the company at P.O. Box 688, Siler City, NC 27344; (888)-522-7420; fax (919) 663-2172; or visit http://www.basicmachinery.com.
SIDEBAR: Acme Plant Gets Grinding MakeoverIn late ’97, Acme started design concept work on a new grinding facility for its Elgin, Texas, plant. The old facility used dry pans of 1920s vintage, bucket elevators and nine old screens. This system posed two major problems: a lack of available replacement parts and the major maintenance costs required to keep such an old plant operating.
The company prepared a detailed specification package and drawings for the new grinding facility, and requested proposals from various vendors. “Basic Machinery put the best effort and interest into their proposal, answering questions and providing a visit to Lee Brick, where they had done some previous work,” said Brian Christenson, Acme Building Brands. “We emphasized the importance of the new grinding facility and agreed to work together to develop a state-of-the-art facility.”
In addition to reliable equipment and construction, Acme knew that a well-developed, informative controls system was necessary. With Acme’s input, Basic developed an informative display system using a Siemens PLC and WinCC software. The system displays all disruptions both visually on the onscreen equipment layout and in a text format at the bottom of the screen. This dual presentation of information is especially helpful for plants like Elgin, where Spanish, rather than English, is the main language of the employees.
The new grinding facility went on-line in 1999 and has been a tremendous benefit to the Elgin plant. “A major part of the plant’s success has been a result of the cooperative development of the controls scheme in the facility,” Christenson said. “Basic Machinery worked with us to develop the controls, and these controls will continue to become more important throughout our facilities as we try to squeeze a little more out of our equipment.”