BCR - Automating Customization

Custom brick manufacturers can't automate their processes-or can they? As Carolina Ceramics recently discovered, advances in automation technology are quickly making just about anything possible.

The 222 Riverside Drive building in New York, N.Y., features Chestnut wirecut modulars and normans from Carolina Ceramics. Photograph by Fred George Photography.

Specially designed, prefired, pressed blocks made by Burton in Germany comprise the kiln's lining. These blocks interlock in two dimensions, forming a labyrinth between each piece.
When Michael Borden purchased Carolina Ceramics (Columbia, S.C.) from Cherokee-Sanford Brick in 1997, he knew he wanted to build a new plant. The company manufactures high-end architectural face brick-both flat and edge set-in a variety of shapes and colors. Their key selling point is customization. "We're not in the volume game," says Borden, Carolina Ceramics' president. "We make all of our jobs to order, and we service kind of a niche market-high quality masonry jobs."

The company's engineers and designers work closely with architects to produce brick specifically crafted to their needs, and they encourage architects to push the design envelope. But this level of customization mandated that most of the company's manufacturing operations be done by hand. "It's easy to automate a process when you're making one or two sizes, but when you're making 12 or 15 sizes it gets a lot trickier," says Borden.

Still, the idea of automating much of the plant was appealing to Borden. Automation would allow the company to improve the quality and consistency of their products while gaining some efficiencies, such as lower fuel costs. So when Borden stumbled upon a system from Ceric that would provide these benefits while maintaining the necessary level of flexibility, he jumped at the chance.

"We had had some experience with Ceric on a kiln at Cherokee-Sanford Brick, and then I went out and visited Robinson Brick and Sioux City Brick, who also had installed some Ceric equipment," says Borden. "The success of these operations gave us the confidence to move forward with automation in a new plant of our own."

Robots provide flexibility because they can set a variety of patterns and sizes.

New Equipment, New Opportunities

Plans for the new plant were drawn up in 1998, and strong demand for their products helped the company move forward quickly.

The kiln was the most important part of the operation. The company selected an index-fired kiln 18 brick wide by 12 brick high in size. This large width, along with a reduced load, will enable the company to achieve a higher brick quality than before. The kiln also uses robotic settings that allow Carolina Ceramics to set more than 20 different sizes of brick. Additionally, the kiln will allow for tighter dimensional tolerances, improved color within the current product offerings, and true clarity of color.

"We do a lot of flashing, and we felt good about the Ceric kiln being able to reproduce our current line," says Borden. "We also like the fact that we're going to have the ability to use reduction firing, where we can make sure we generate these flash colors."

The kiln's exterior resembles a conventional kiln-a low rectangular structure covered in red brick. But the similarity ends there. Inside, the kiln is a testament to just how far firing technology has come within the past few years. "It's the current state-of-the-art as far as kiln design is concerned," says Tony Edwards, vice president of Ceric Inc. in Denver, Colo.

Specially designed, prefired, pressed blocks made by Burton in Germany comprise the kiln's lining. These blocks interlock in two dimensions, forming a labyrinth between each piece that makes it difficult for kiln gases to escape into the outside atmosphere, or vice versa. To further prevent leakage, a non-structural "vapor barrier" is built into the wall construction. The vapor barrier is sandwiched between the main insulation inside the kiln and another layer on the outside, so that its temperature remains at a constant 500 or 600°F. This design keeps the temperature of any gas encountering the barrier above the acid dewpoint and prevents corrosion from occurring on the vapor barrier. The vapor barrier is continued across the top of the kiln as well, further ensuring that the kiln gases will not leak into the atmosphere.

"Typically when you flash a conventional kiln you see the smoke arising from all around the end of the main zone where you're flashing. That's just not going to happen with this design," says Edwards.

The wall is anchored to the steel goalpost frame that supports the kiln, and the suspended roof is also composed of interlocking pieces. Unlike many suspended-roof designs, this particular kiln does not require forced air cooling in the roof cavity. "Usually you have to pull air through that cavity in order to keep the anchors cool enough," says Edwards. "But in this kiln, the suspended roof is fully insulated and there is no need to cool the anchors. If there's a power failure, you don't have a sudden panic about the temperature of the cavity and what you need to do to keep it cold."

A side benefit to not using forced air cooling is that leakage of gases through the suspended roof is eliminated. "Commonly, after some years of service, gases begin to leak through the suspended roof, and you start to pick up corrosive gases in the roof cooling air," says Edwards. "When that happens, you can no longer use the kiln's roof cooling for drying without running into problems of scumming in the dryer. This kiln doesn't have that air, so it doesn't have the problem of dealing with that leakage."

For the rest of the equipment in the new plant, Carolina Ceramics' main criterion was flexibility. "We believed that robots would give us the most flexibility because they can set a variety of setting patterns and sizes," says Michael Borden. "We've got two robots to set the brick on cars, completely automated car handling equipment, and an automatic unloading machine that will unload the hacks off the car onto a slat conveyor that goes to the monorail."

One area Carolina Ceramics chose not to automate was its packaging stage. "We wanted to continue to hand-blend our bricks to ensure color consistency," says Borden. Instead of automating the packaging system, the company automated its delivery system to the packaging machine. At that point, the unloaders will package the bricks by hand.

"This gives us a last look at the bricks to make sure the colors go together, and we can blend one or two different shades together and get some unique ranges," says Borden.

The company currently employs 60 people to operate its old plant. Fifteen people will be hired to operate the new facility, with the majority of the workers located in the unloading and packaging operations. At some point, automation may be added to those operations as well, Borden says.

Increased Flexibility for Future Demand

The new plant was completed in July 2000 and is scheduled to be at full capacity in September. It will manufacture 40 million bricks per year. The company will continue to run one of its old kilns for a total production of 55 million bricks per year.

"We originally started this project as a way to automate our plant and increase our product quality," says Borden. "But with the increasing demand over the past three years, it's evolved into providing additional capacity as well.

"The new plant is almost double the size of our old plant," he adds. "That should give us the ability to add some sizes and colors. We're going to make some 16-in. bricks now, which is about the only thing we weren't doing before. And we really haven't added a lot of colors previously simply because we didn't have the capacity or the time to make them. The new plant will give us the additional capacity we needed to bring some new colors on-line and stay out in front."

As the market for customized bricks continues to grow, Carolina Ceramics intends to be at the forefront of manufacturing technology. Its new plant will enable them to keep pace with market demands.

"We wanted to build something that would be good 10 years from now, and robots offer the ultimate in flexibility," says Borden. "As new needs develop in the market, we'll be able to go out there and meet those needs."

For More Information

For more information about Carolina Ceramics' new plant, contact Carolina Ceramics at 9931 Two Notch Road, Columbia, SC 29223; (803) 788-1916; fax (803) 736-5218. Or contact Ceric, Inc. at 350 Indiana Street Suite 550, Golden, CO 80401; (303) 277-0404; fax (303) 277-0506.

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