INVESTING IN CERAMICS: Staying Nimble
Over the past several decades-and especially within the last few years-a vast number of ceramic manufacturers have had to rethink their product lines and business strategies in the face of increasing global competition. What a lot of manufacturers might not realize is that industry suppliers have been dealt a particularly hard blow as many of their customers have consolidated and/or moved overseas. For many of these suppliers, significantly increasing prices or reducing services to offset their reductions in business is not an option. Instead, these companies have renewed their dedication to the ceramic industry by becoming more flexible, innovative and capable of solving a broader range of industry problems.
One example of this resilient breed of suppliers is Harrop Industries, Inc., an engineering services firm based in Columbus, Ohio, that specializes in drying and firing technologies. The company has been no stranger to challenges since it first started doing business as Carl H. Harrop Engineers in 1919, but its response to these challenges has always been the same-service first. This philosophy has led Harrop in some unusual directions and has reinforced the company's reputation as a trustworthy, solutions-oriented supplier.
Learning About New TechnologiesFor the company whose motto is "fire our imagination," no problem ever has a one-size-fits-all solution. "The needs of each customer are unique, and we make a special effort to fully understand the process, problems and objectives before offering any kind of solution," says President James E. Houseman, Ph.D.
The company employs full-time professional engineers whose primary job is to carefully analyze the entire production process for each project. This review typically includes a complete plant survey, an energy-use audit, and precise materials characterization through the company's extensive materials testing laboratory in Columbus-all of which are used to pinpoint the exact process requirements.
While in some cases these requirements can be met with existing technologies, Harrop also isn't afraid to pursue a less conventional approach if the situation warrants it. "We have always tried to identify emergent technologies and adapt accordingly," Houseman says.
The company encourages all of its employees to continuously expand their industry education by attending workshops and trade seminars on the latest developments in manufacturing, materials research and electronic systems. According to Houseman, an average year might find Harrop associates at about 20 different conferences and trade shows in an effort to gauge the industry's needs and learn about new innovations. But the company's standards are high-just because a technology is new and appears to offer a lot of "bells and whistles," doesn't necessarily mean it will be integrated into the next Harrop dryer or kiln.
"A lot of ‘new' technologies have emerged over the years, but they're not always good technologies," Houseman explains. "What we're most concerned with is that any technology we integrate into our systems and recommend to our clients must be practical-it has to perform well in a production environment, and it has to be the right solution for a particular project."
Meeting the Industry's NeedsIn some cases, Harrop's quest for the "ideal solution" actually seems counterproductive to achieving high sales figures. "Our advice is trusted to be unbiased, even when it is obvious that Harrop would compete for any subsequent sales," Houseman says. "More than once, we've steered customers away from unnecessary expense, and even into products offered by other companies."
While some companies might not see that as a good business practice, such integrity has its merits-more than 90% of Harrop's customers have given the company repeat business. Unlike many of today's corporations, the bottom line is not the sole dictator of Harrop's decisions; instead, a genuine concern for its customers and their needs determines the company's course of action. As a result, Harrop has carefully managed its growth and diversification to preserve the "partnership philosophy" that it believes is imperative to true success. For example, as its level of service to the electronics industry and other high-tech segments grew in the 1990s, Harrop decided to purchase the A.J. Carsten Co. Ltd. to expand its product offerings for these fields. This acquisition was completed in 1996 and has led to an increasing use of tape casting machines to improve manufacturing processes in applications ranging from multi-layer ceramic capacitors and semiconductor substrates to microelectronics and fuel cells.
But "carefully managed growth" has also meant some downsizing, such as when the company sold its instrument business to the Orton Ceramic Foundation in December 1999. "We had diversified too much, and we discovered that our instrument division was a distraction," explains Houseman. "We wanted to get back to focusing on our core strengths-engineered drying and firing systems, expert production analyses, plant revamps and upgrades, and testing and consulting services.
"We never want to spread ourselves too thin to live up to our customers' expectations," he adds.
Adapting to ChallengesThroughout Harrop's history, adaptation has been key to the company's survival. Although its drying and firing systems are widely used throughout the ceramic and brick industries, the company has never been content to be just an equipment supplier. Instead, it sees each project as an opportunity to optimize the overall performance of its clients' manufacturing operations. Harrop provides turnkey installation services-from rigging, dryer and kiln construction and electrical and utility work, to documentation, personnel training, startup and testing-and is a design/build contractor of complete ceramic and brick manufacturing plants. It helps companies maximize their existing equipment through retrofits and technology upgrades, and it also offers consulting on matters ranging from raw material behavior to process troubleshooting to plant energy audits. Additionally, the company's 10,000-square-foot materials testing laboratory and firing facility enables it to assist manufacturers with ASTM compliance testing and characterization of clay and other raw materials using sophisticated instrumentation and equipment.
As the ceramic industry has changed, suppliers such as Harrop have changed along with it, finding and meeting needs and filling in the gaps. For an industry in which technical and monetary resources are in increasingly short supply, this level of service is crucial in regaining and retaining a competitive edge.
For more information about Harrop Industries, Inc., contact the company at 3470 E. Fifth Ave., Columbus, OH 43219-1797; (614) 231-3621; fax (614) 235-3699; or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org .