A New Name in Ceramic Tile

Steuben Tile is using state-of-the-art technology to bring high-end tile into the reach of the average consumer

Steuben Tile's artists in Bolivia excel at hand-painted designs such as this mural.
In February 2004, a new 45,000-square-foot tile manufacturing plant began operation. Using state-of-the-art equipment imported from Italy, Steuben Tile is capable of producing 150,000 square feet of glazed, double-fired and extruded wall and floor tile per month at a price range that is comfortable for the average homeowner. But while its high-tech machinery, cutting-edge designs and strategic marketing plan certainly add to the company's competitive capabilities, these factors in and of themselves aren't that unusual. What really makes the company stand out is its location-in an era when many long-standing U.S. ceramic plants are closing their doors and shifting overseas, Steuben Tile, with the help of the New York State business development agencies, is determined to reaffirm the potential of the U.S. market from its manufacturing site in Hornell, N.Y.

Jock Chamberlain, the president of the new company, is the first to admit that the plan sounds aggressive. But according to Chamberlain, being aggressive is the only way to survive in today's tile industry.

"The industry as a whole needs to be aggressive to compete in today's world market. We're running out of trees and synthetic flooring materials. We have to raise tile awareness and consumption per capita in this country to save our natural resources. The industry needs new ideas," Chamberlain says. "Opening a new plant in the U.S. might seem risky, but we have the advantage of starting with a clean slate. With our highly efficient manufacturing technology, we can efficiently produce tile in a manner that is quite competitive to imports. In addition, we have no ocean shipping costs or import duties. And because we're serving a niche market of high-end, high-quality tile, we believe we have enormous potential for success."

The equipment in the new plant includes this SITI 40-meter (131-ft) roller kiln, which is capable of double firing up to 150,000 square feet of glazed tile per month.

Going Beyond the "Frosting"

Steuben Tile's roots actually originated 10 years ago in Sucre, Bolivia, the country's historic capital and a region rich in the tradition of terra cotta ceramics. With financial assistance from the World Bank and the technical expertise of the Dutch government, the company began to make tile using the most primitive methods in a small fabrica. Clay and talc from the local Andes mountains were quarried by the local Aymar

Steuben Tile's clay preparation area.

Networking for Know-How

Chamberlain's first thought was to build a field tile plant in Mexico, where labor is inexpensive and raw materials are plentiful. But he didn't want to take a chance on having technical problems impede his goals.

"In Campeche, Mexico, where we were thinking of building the plant, we would have been a long way from technology," Chamberlain explains. "If you have a problem with your glazes and need to bring in a supplier to help you troubleshoot, it could take a week to correct the problem. Additionally, the quality of the local clays isn't as consistent as those found in the U.S. Even just a 1% variation in shrinkage or expansion can throw your glazes off, and you can start crackling when you're not supposed to. We decided that if we were going to do this, we wanted use the best materials possible-Vanderbilt talc, which is only found in New York, and the high-quality ball clays and white kaolins from Tennessee-and we also wanted access to the wide range of experience and know-how found in the U.S."

Chamberlain was aware of the challenges of manufacturing in the U.S., but he also realized that a location in the renowned "ceramics corridor" of New York would put a host of ceramic experts and technology at the company's disposal. The decision was simplified with the tremendous help, financial support and tax incentives provided by the New York State investment agencies. The Steuben team finally settled on Hornell, which is in Steuben County-also the location of the famous but unrelated Steuben Glass-and just eight miles away from Alfred University.

Selecting equipment was the next hurdle. Rather than trying to compete with the high-quantity, low-price-point "commodity tile," Steuben Tile wanted to stay in the decorative high-end niche, but it also wanted to produce its products as efficiently and as cost-effectively as possible. With the help of Alfred University and its Center for Advanced Ceramic Technology (CACT), Steuben Tile began studying myriad production techniques and machinery options to determine the best way to produce large quantities of extruded tile using hydraulic pressing, quick drying, fast firing and line glazing techniques. The company's efforts led it to Sossuolo, Italy, which boasts more than 450 tile manufacturers-and some of the best tile production equipment in the world.

Chamberlain believes this state-of-the-art equipment will give Steuben Tile the competitive edge it needs to succeed. "This machinery allows us to produce up to 150,000 square feet of tile per month using three eight-hour shifts. We can easily double that capacity later on with a small investment," he says.

The company's proximity to Alfred University is also providing major benefits. "Any time we have a problem-whether it's a minor production-related issue, such as determining what kind of floor sweeper to use, or a technical problem, such as a glaze that isn't fitting correctly-we have a network of professionals just eight miles away with a myriad of ASTM testing equipment who can help us find the solution," Chamberlain says. "In fact, it's not uncommon for restaurant conversation in this region to center around clay and glaze formulations, thermal expansion, coefficient of friction and the use of oxides to solve problems of delayed failure and unwanted crackle. This is where problems are solved, materials are tested and new ideas are discovered."

Capturing Market Share

Although the new plant was still in the testing phase at the time this article was written, Chamberlain is confident of its potential. The company has merged its high-tech field tile capabilities with its high-quality hand painting operation in Bolivia to offer the widest possible range of design options. Glazes and firing cycles have been carefully developed to maximize the compatibility of the tile produced at both plants.

With a combination of design flexibility, high quality, fast service and a relatively low price, Steuben Tile is poised to make a significant contribution to the ceramic tile industry.

"We estimate that there is a growing $125 million ‘affordable luxury' tile market, and we are honored to share this distinguished market with the likes of Sonoma, Gainey, Ann Sacks and ME Tile," Chamberlain says.

For more information about Steuben Tile, contact the company at 40 Shawmut Park Dr., Hornell, NY 14843; (607) 324-7002; fax (607) 324-7558; or visit http://www.steubentile.com .


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