Investing in Ceramics: Heating Things Up

Nutec Bickley is carrying on the high-temperature tradition that Bickley Furnaces began in 1958.

A high-temperature Carbell kiln, featuring preheated air and an afterburner, at an installation in Slovenia.
In 2000, Bickley Furnaces joined Grupo Nutec, a Mexican conglomerate specializing in the heat-treating and kiln industries. In business for 25 years, Grupo Nutec originally manufactured burners. Now a partner with North American Manufacturing for the manufacture of combustion equipment in Mexico and South America, the group also produces ceramic fiber in addition to kilns. “When the chance came for Bickley to join Grupo Nutec, it was seen as an opportunity to combine Nutec’s skills in the thermal business with the ceramic business of Bickley,” says Travis Maples, president of Nutec Bickley-USA. “With Bickley’s reputation and experience, it was a very good fit.”

Nutec Bickley, as the new company is named, operates through two branches. Nutec Bickley-USA serves as the sales, engineering and service group, while Nutec Bickley-Mexico handles manufacturing. The two companies work as a team, and the leadership consists of Maples; Arturo Arechavaleta, president of Nutec Bickley-Mexico; and Genaro F. Cueva, CEO. “This three-man team handles all of the upper level management decisions for Nutec Bickley,” says Maples. “The communication between the two offices is very seamless, despite geography.”

The 85,000-square-foot Monterrey, Mexico, facility features a plant that was built specifically for building capital thermal equipment, including extensive overhead cranes to facilitate the manufacture of these large products. The company’s U.S. office is still located at the original Bickley site in Bensalem, Pa.

Having the two offices in different countries actually offers customers potential benefits, according to Maples. “We have the option of either taking the order in the U.S. or taking it in Mexico,” he says. “We tell the customer what tax or other cost advantages there might be to either option, and then they make a decision and place the order. We encourage the customer to make the decision that’s in their best interest.”

The Business at Hand

Nutec Bickley reaches a broad range of industries—from technical ceramics and whitewares to refractories and abrasives. In addition to its traditional stable of high-temperature kiln and burner offerings, the company also offers dryers, ceramic fiber lining systems and combustion control systems. One thing that hasn’t changed is the company’s commitment to quality and customer service. “We have the ability to react very quickly to a customer’s needs and requests,” Maples says. “If they need something quickly, then we’re able to react right away. We accomplish that by assigning the right team to each customer to solve their problems.”

The sales team uses an internal questionnaire to help discover each customer’s individual needs and specifications, and the staff also relies on each other for ideas and suggestions. “Knowledge is really good in this business,” says Maples. “Having exceptional people and giving them the freedom to offer their input is something that we really advocate.” After detailed discussions, information such as setting height, load dimensions and temperature requirements is entered into an estimating system, and a quote is generated to meet the customer’s specifications.

“In this business, every piece of equipment is custom—we build it for the customer,” says Maples. “We spend whatever time is necessary to ensure that we understand as well as we can what the customer really wants. And sometimes, we have ideas that even the customer hasn’t thought of. For example, we recently had a customer in Europe who was looking for a high-temperature shuttle kiln. We convinced him that the better product would be a Carbell kiln because of the high temperature requirements and the elimination of the door. We try to give customers alternatives and options to help them understand what’s really available for their product.”

Nutec Bickley has recently installed, or is in the process of installing, kilns in countries as diverse as China, Slovenia, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Chile, England, Taiwan, Mexico and the U.S. Kilns for high-temperature applications (1600-1850?C) are still the company’s specialty, and it is experienced in working with natural gas, heavy and light oils, LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) and other types of fuel. Mass flow, proportional and pulse combustion systems are available, including hybrid systems with flexible zoning and pulse/proportional combination systems. “We have over 1700 kilns installed worldwide at this time, and I would say that somewhere between 85-90% of them are still in operation,” says Maples.

In addition, the company’s Spare Parts and Equipment Upgrade group provides customers with solutions to spare parts problems and existing equipment upgrades. This service ranges from supplying the smallest individual part to assisting in the planning of a complete refractory reline or combustion system replacement.

“We are continually looking for ways to improve customer service and exceed their expectations,” says Maples. “We are able to provide a partnership approach to our customers and work directly with their operations and engineering organizations to provide the best solution to their ceramic firing needs.”

For More Information

For more information, contact Travis Maples at P.O. Box 550, State Rd., Bensalem, PA 19020; (215) 638-4500; fax (215) 638-4334; e-mail; or visit the company’s website at

SIDEBAR: Firing Innovations

Soon after it was founded in 1958, Bickley Furnaces quickly developed and patented innovations such as the Carbell(R) kiln and isojet(R) burner. According to Maples, the Carbell concept was a true innovation. Instead of moving the product on kiln cars through a stationary kiln, as in shuttle or tunnel kilns, the Carbell kiln actually raises and lowers over the kiln car. “The benefit of this type of kiln is that you get a very efficient seal around the entire perimeter of the kiln car,” says Maples. “You don’t have to deal with the door, and at high temperatures the door is always a problem. Also, the majority of all Carbells are downdrafts, which provides a more uniform heat inside the kiln.”

Bickley’s isojet burner also represented a technological advance. According to Maples, it was the first true excess air burner. “It had a turndown ratio of over a 100:1, which was basically unheard of at that time,” says Maples. “The isojet was designed for complete combustion to take place within the burner block, and with gases leaving the block at over 350 miles per hour it was a radically new development in burner technology. The burner was designed so that the air passing around the block actually worked as a coolant to the ceramic construction of the burner itself.” Today, the Generation III isojet is still on the cutting edge. “Among our competition, I think there are some 700-750,000 BTU burners out there, but we make burners that go up to 1.5 million BTUs,” says Maples. “It’s still quite a unique burner.”

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