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Over the past several decades, a number of U.S. ceramic manufacturers have been forced to consolidate their manufacturing operations and/or move their plants to regions with lower manufacturing costs. Other companies will likely be faced with this same difficult process in the near future. But when a plant is forced to close, what happens to its kilns? How can companies ensure they get their money’s worth from what is in many cases their most valuable investment?
Moving the kilns to another plant is an obvious solution, but doing so successfully requires both skill and experience. For this reason, many companies have turned to Swindell Dressler International Co., a kiln builder based in Pittsburgh, Pa.
“We’ve been moving kilns since the late ’50s, when some of our customers started asking us if we could move their Swindell Dressler kilns,” explains Greg Sullivan, vice president of operations. “Since then, we’ve also successfully moved a number of kilns built by other manufacturers. Companies that find themselves having to consolidate and move their plants often want to reuse their equipment, and this service enables them to do that.”
Deciding to Move Your KilnAccording to Sullivan, a key factor in determining whether a kiln can be moved to a new location is its portability. “For a company to consider moving a kiln, the kiln must have had some portability to it when it was originally built. Kilns that were built off-site and brought into the factory, or were built in the factory through modular construction, are typically good candidates,” he explains.
Although most “modern” (10 years old or less) kilns fit into this category, some older kilns are also portable. As early as the late ’50s, for example, Swindell Dressler had already begun using modular construction in a design called the “Unifab.” However, Sullivan cautions that the kiln’s value should also be considered when deciding whether to move it to a different location. “Many of the old modular kilns have already been moved multiple times, to the point where they’ve almost disintegrated, and their design is a bit dated,” he says. “Moving a kiln can be an expensive operation, so it needs to make sense from an economic standpoint. If a kiln is too old to add value to a production process, it isn’t worth moving.”
In some cases, moving an existing kiln can save a significant amount of money compared to buying a new kiln. For example, when Ferro Corp. closed its kiln furniture plant in East Liverpool, Ohio, in the late ’90s, the company decided to hire Swindell Dressler to move one of its 120-ft-long, ceramic fiber-lined Swindell Dressler kilns to its Crooksville, Ohio, kiln furniture plant. “We needed a new, modern kiln, and the kiln in the East Liverpool plant was only about five years old at the time,” explains Mick Pease, foreman of the Crooksville plant. “Moving it to this plant cost somewhere between $50,000-100,000. But the kiln is worth about $1.5 million, so it was a lot cheaper for us to move and retrofit that kiln than it would have been to purchase a new kiln.”
Crane Plumbing, Somerset, Pa., had a similar experience. Several years ago, the company purchased a used Swindell Dressler shuttle kiln from a plant that had closed in California. “The kiln was about seven years old when we bought it, but it featured a modern design and was completely computer-controlled. By moving the kiln to this plant, we were able to get the benefits of a relatively new, high-tech kiln in good condition at a much more competitive price compared to buying a new one,” says Kevin Campbell, plant manager for Crane’s Somerset facility.
For other companies, time might be the deciding factor. “The cost of moving a kiln depends on the kiln’s size and design. In some cases, it might actually cost the same amount of money to move an existing kiln or build a new kiln, but an existing kiln can often be back up and running faster than a new kiln,” Sullivan explains. “For companies that need the extra capacity at another plant, the time savings can be crucial.”
Getting From There to HereOnce a company has made the decision to move a kiln to a different location, the logistics of the operation need to be determined. “Sometimes the kiln is built into the bowels of the building, and it has to be taken out of the plant without moving everything else,” Sullivan explains. “In some cases, we have to split the kiln into sections and build frames around those sections, and then we put those frames on large machinery rollers and try to snake them through the building. Other times it’s more straightforward.”
According to Sullivan, Swindell Dressler can handle all of the details—from deciding how to get the existing kiln out of its current environment, to packaging and shipping the various components, to preparing the receiving plant for the kiln’s arrival and installing the kiln at the new site. But many ceramic manufacturers prefer to handle certain aspects of the project—particularly the site preparation work—themselves. “Our expertise is in dismantling, shipping and re-installing the kilns, but we can also subcontract just about any type of work. If a company wants us put in new foundations and a building addition, we’ll do that—it’s up to the customer to define the scope of the project. However, most companies choose to handle the site preparation and civil engineering work at the receiving plant themselves simply because it’s cheaper to do it that way,” Sullivan says.
In Ferro’s Crooksville plant, for instance, the newer, fiber-lined tunnel kiln had to be integrated with two older brick-lined kilns that both operated in a pit. The plant used its own engineering team to devise a solution. “We had to expand the walls of the existing pit to enable the new kiln cars to run parallel to the existing cars,” Pease explains. “We also had to reroute some of our gas lines to make sure we could get enough gas pressure into the new kiln when we were firing our existing kilns. Overall, we spent about four months doing preparation work—building the pit, laying the kiln car tracks and moving gas lines—before we were ready to have the new kiln brought into the plant. But it was more cost-effective for us to do the prep work ourselves than to have Swindell Dressler handle it.”
After the scope of the project has been defined and the logistics of moving the kiln have been determined, Swindell Dressler puts together a cost estimate for labor and transportation. The company also compiles a checklist of contingencies. “Contingency planning is a big part of the effort,” Sullivan explains. “Companies have to understand that certain things will have to be sacrificed when a kiln is moved. For instance, if you want to move a kiln with brick walls, we’ll bind those walls up really well for shipment, but we’re still going to lose some of that brick—there’s just no way around it. And that will have to be replaced when the kiln is installed in its new location.”
However, despite some unavoidable problems, the company’s extensive experience in moving kilns generally ensures that each project goes as smoothly as possible. “We typically build special rigs and equipment to protect the kilns while we’re moving them. When we moved the fiber-lined kiln to Ferro’s Crooksville plant, for example, we built a structure inside the kiln that pressed against the walls and held the fiber in place during transit. This prevented Ferro from having to reline the kiln after it was installed in the new location. When we move kiln cars, we also package them very carefully to ensure that they arrive safely,” says Sullivan.
Once the kiln arrives at its final destination, Swindell Dressler’s kiln building experience comes into play. The company carefully reassembles the kiln and ensures that it is working properly before handing everything over to the ceramic manufacturer. Swindell Dressler can also upgrade the kiln by changing car moving systems, control instrumentation, or even combustion systems and linings to suit new locations, technology and/or applications. And if a company needs assistance beyond installation and upgrades, Swindell Dressler can provide that, too. For the kiln installed at Crane Plumbing’s Somerset plant, for example, some operational training was needed. “We didn’t have any experience running a modern, computer-controlled shuttle kiln, so Swindell Dressler arranged to have one of their service technicians stay at our plant for several weeks after the kiln was installed to show us how to run the kiln. That helped us significantly,” says Campbell.
Maximizing Your Kiln’s ValueConsolidating manufacturing operations is never easy, especially when it means closing plants that contain modern, valuable equipment. But moving that equipment to other facilities can provide an opportunity to upgrade those facilities without investing a significant amount of capital in new equipment. Although the thought of moving a kiln can be daunting, an experienced, reliable kiln moving service can help ensure that the project goes smoothly and that the kiln provides added value in its new manufacturing environment.
“In the past several years, an increasing number of kilns have made a journey and set up roots elsewhere with Swindell Dressler as their tour guide. Kilns have been relocated to and from such places as California, Canada, Georgia, Guatemala, Maryland, Mexico, Missouri, New Jersey, Nicaragua, Ohio and Pennsylvania. By relying on a company with a solid reputation in kiln building to move their kilns, ceramic manufacturers can be assured that they’ll get the maximum value from their kilns, no matter where those kilns are operating,” says Sullivan.