The Changing Face Of Clay

May 11, 2000
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As production methods change and production speeds increase, ceramic manufacturers are increasingly challenged to find raw materials that will meet their needs. If you’ve just invested thousands of dollars in a new pressure casting system, you probably don’t want to spend several months evaluating clays that will work with it. Chances are you won’t have to.

Over the past decade, clay producers have done an about-face in the way they do business. Gone is the “department store” mentality with a limited palette of off-the-shelf products to choose from. Today’s clay producer comes to you, asks what you need, and then puts its technical development team to work to meet those needs. And the manufacturer needn’t worry about quality, either—these clay companies go to great lengths to ensure that only the best products enter your processes.

For a behind-the-scenes look at some of the developments in the clay industry, Ceramic Industry talked with representatives from a few ball clay producers that have made great strides in quality control, product development and technical service over the past few years. The results of these interviews appear on the following pages. If your company would like to submit an “Investing in Ceramics” article for a future issue, please contact Susan Sutton, Editorial and Production Manager, at (614) 789-1881; fax (614) 760-5922; or e-mail sesuttonci@aol.com.

Editor’s note: The companies included in this article are those known to the editors to have made major changes in their processes or products over the past several years. For a more complete list of ball clay and other raw material suppliers, please consult the 1999-2000 Data Book and Buyers’ Guide in print or online.

K-T Clay Focuses On Customization

For Kentucky-Tennessee Clay Co., the clay business isn’t just about supplying clays—it’s about helping people. From ensuring product quality to offering new products, the company’s goal is to help its customers improve their manufacturing operations.

Product Testing.Product testing has become a big issue for K-T Clay. The faster firing cycles used for tile and sanitaryware have made elements such as carbon undesirable in many clay products. For carbon testing technology, the company turned to its kaolin division. “Carbon testing has always been an issue for our kaolin division because we supply a lot of clay for fiberglass,” says Bill Weidman, senior vice president. “We’ve been able to transfer that same type of technology to our ball clay divisions, so that now they’re also capable of testing for carbon.” Increased testing and better mining techniques have enabled K-T Clay to isolate lower-carbon clays for those manufacturers that require them.

Plant Expansions and New Products.K-T’s mantra of “customization” is also exemplified through its recent Gleason, Tenn., plant expansion, in which additional storage tanks were installed to provide the capacity to handle more finished slurries for sanitaryware. “Certain products do not suit everyone, so you have to be open to trying to develop customized clay blends to suit customers’ needs,” says Weidman. “Five years ago we probably had enough storage for about three finished products. Today we have more like six—effectively doubling our storage capacity.”

The company also expanded its dry-milling capacity at the Gleason facility to handle a kaolin-type clay for a fiberglass manufacturer. Over the past 10 years, an increasing number of U.S. sanitaryware manufacturers have begun using pressure casting—a process that requires coarser clay blends and clays that are more easily dewatered. K-T Clay developed two new products—one from its ball clays group and another from its kaolin group—to meet these needs while providing faster casting rates.

Customer Service.K-T Clay has also customized its sales force. Today, instead of salespeople calling on customers and offering what’s already available, engineers visit customers’ facilities and design products to fit their applications. “We’ve switched from just pure service and maintenance of accounts to actually trying to help the customer improve their operation as well,” says Weidman. “It’s a much more technical interaction than it used to be.”

And K-T Clay doesn’t plan to stop there. Other changes are inevitably part of the company’s future. “We’re always looking for methods and ways to become more efficient, and we’re always looking inward to see if we can be more innovative in our approach to solving problems,” Weidman says.

For more information about Kentucky-Tennessee Clay Co., contact the company at 1441 Donelson Pike, Nashville, TN 37217; (615) 365-0852; fax (615) 365-0842.

Old Hickory Gets New Vision

Old Hickory Clay Co. has been supplying clays to the ceramic industry for more than 80 years, but its commitment to customer service and innovation continues to offer a fresh, new perspective to the business. Over the past few years, the company has evolved from clay supplier to “solution provider,” with emphasis on quality control and a personal, customized approach.

Quality Control.The ISO 9000 standards have been key to ensuring that only the highest-quality products leave Old Hickory’s production facilities. In October 1994, the company was certified to the ISO 9002 standard, and in September 1996, it became the first ball clay company to be certified to ISO 9001. As a result, quality control begins much earlier in the process, reducing time lost due to failed quality inspections and rework.

“Through the process of recertification and our annual audit process, as well as our internal monthly audits, we’re shifting more and more responsibility to the production process level for product quality,” says Patrick Powell, vice president. “Our production people are assuming more responsibility as they increasingly understand the need for consistency, and they, in turn, are making quite an impact on product quality improvements.

“When only management supervises product quality, you’re usually talking about ‘after the fact.’ But by taking quality control to the production level, you get it right the first time,” Powell says.

Product Development.On the sales and marketing side, the company has improved its technical service by building a team with manufacturing experience and expertise. This team goes to a customer’s facility and listens to what demands that customer has for new products and processes, and then returns to Old Hickory to assist in product development. In many cases, the products are customized and sold only to that specific manufacturer. However, products with wide-ranging applications, such as the UltraCast 34A slurry for sanitaryware products, have also been developed through this process.

The automated bulk bagging system recently installed in the company’s Kentucky facility is another example of how the company responds to customer requests. “A lot of people prefer to buy our No. 1 Glaze clay, for example, in bulk bags because they have a specific batch size that allows them to put in a given number of pounds,” says Powell. “With a bulk bag, they can release the clay at once into their batch and avoid the task of splitting the 50-pound bags.”

New Marketing Affiliation.Old Hickory Clay Co. has formed a sales and marketing alliance with the newly created company “Clayworld.” Clayworld will incorporate the talents of the Old Hickory sales and technical team and focus on providing a more complete package to the ceramic industry by representing ball clay products from Old Hickory, as well as other products and services. Clayworld has the responsibility to provide technical sales and market representation for Old Hickory’s ball clays, RZM’s zirconium silicate, 3M’s Arkansas nepheline syenite and Lakeside Ceramic Consulting’s technical services, as well as other companies’ products, equipment and services. Through these developments, Old Hickory is poised to continue its success by providing consistent, high quality ball clays into the future.

For more information about Old Hickory Clay Co., contact the company at P.O. Box 66, Hickory, KY 42051-0066; (270) 247-3042; fax (270) 247-1842. Or contact Clayworld, P.O. Box 100, Hickory, KY 42051-0100; (800) 242-6885; fax (270) 247-1842.

Quality & Consistency At H.C. Spinks

At the H. C. Spinks Clay Co., quality and consistency are like a trademark; they are the basis of the company’s reputation. Numerous investments have been made over the past several years to raise the company’s performance to even higher levels.

Mining Techniques.In the summer of 1995, H.C. Spinks began using CAD mapping for geology exploration and mine control. The process became fully operational in late 1996, and refinements have continued to be made.

The use of CAD mapping has permitted an expanded pre-production quality testing program that significantly reduces product variation. “The CAD system allows us to determine the quality of the clay and put it in various categories, and each of these categories is assigned a color,” says Ronald J. Thomas, technical manager. “Before we ever move the dirt off the surface of the clay, we already know what we’re going to see. It’s like an extremely accurate forecasting system.”

The company recently opened four new mines, offering more clay components to improve blend consistency and the ability to offer new products.

Laboratories & Plants.Construction of a second quality control laboratory in Gleason, Tenn., in February 1998 put quality control checks within steps of the production process being monitored. In the past, material was trucked in from the Gleason plant to the laboratory in Paris, Tenn., about 19 miles away. This extra production step delayed testing operations and made on-time shipments difficult to achieve. “With the new lab, we’re trying to make sure that we’re on time with our shipments—we don’t want to hold up a shipment because a quality control test hasn’t been done yet,” says Thomas. “Now we have nearly real-time quality control information. A high-speed communications link for voice and data permits rapid access to all laboratory results.” The lab contains the most modern equipment available for chemical analysis, viscosity, and specific surface area.

Spinks also recently expanded its wet plant for ball clay slurry production, increasing the storage capacity from an industry high 316,000 gallons to over 600,000 gallons. Specialized plumbing was installed in the new facility to permit a nearly infinite number of blending steps. “If you get a tank of material in which the characteristics aren’t acceptable, the piping and pumping system at the control panel allows you to move that slurry to almost any tank at any time,” says Thomas. “There are no dead ends in this system—the blending is always complete.”

The new blending system enabled the company to develop several new products in response to customer requirements for modern production methods. For instance, a coarse slurry (Flo-Tech CR) was developed for pressure casting sanitaryware, a process that requires faster cycles. A “pressable” clay with low gas evolution (Tile Blend 123) was developed for the fast firing of tile. And low carbon and sulfur clays (Flo-Tech LS) were developed for fast cycles in slip casting sanitaryware, along with several additive systems that permit enhanced performance properties.

Technical Service.As customers focus on production efficiencies, they frequently turn to quality-conscious suppliers to assist their efforts. “Spinks responds with either in-house project capability in our laboratories and pilot plant or at the customer’s site with experienced ceramic engineers.” says Thomas.

Continuous improvement with more reserves, and timely testing using the most advanced measurement systems and techniques are helping to ensure the success of H.C. Spinks’ customers.

For more information about H.C. Spinks, contact the company at P.O. Box 820, Paris, TN 38242; (901) 642-5414; fax (901) 642-5493.

Unimin As Clay Supplier

Unimin Corp. acquired the United Clays division of Watts Blake Bearne (WBB) in 1999 as a strategic extension to its ceramic minerals product mix. Unimin, a supplier of ceramic flint, feldspar and nepheline syenite, regards this integration of high-quality clays, ceramic talc and prepared bodies as an important addition to its industry portfolio. “Formulation options and technical support are the critical inputs our customers seek, and are the added value that differentiates Unimin from other producers,” says Craig W. Johnson, director of marketing at Unimin’s corporate office in New Canaan, Conn. “With access to complementary flints and fluxes, we anticipate synergies on all levels.”

New Product Development.Product development and technical support have always been an integral part of United Clays, but Unimin adds a new dimension. With the additional resources of Unimin’s materials research lab in Illinois and its product development center in North Carolina, the company is taking a fresh look at ceramics.

For example, the company recently developed a new range of Tennessee clays for vitreous tile that it believes will improve strength and fast firing properties. Unimin also continues to expand its line of Texas clays. “These clays are proven to have excellent tile properties,” says Johnson. “Recently, we’ve also extended the product range to produce new blends for traditional talc and calcium carbonate based wall tile and fast-fired porcelain tile.”

Sanitaryware also remains a core business as evidenced in 1994 when United Clays brought its noodle plant online in Gleason, Tenn., to provide a processed clay for the sanitaryware market. These grades are predeflocculated, offer very low residue and a controlled shipping moisture content for easy dispersion and processing.

Process Optimization.Unimin is also dedicated to continuing the United Clays philosophy of process innovation. “Ongoing investments of capital and process engineering are intended to produce the highest quality products and optimal production efficiencies,” says Johnson. “Blending systems that produce prepared and partially prepared bodies is one way we hope to better serve our ceramic customers. This allows manufacturers to focus their resources on design and production, rather than materials handling, inventory and mixing.”

For customers who find operational advantages in the use of slurried clays, Unimin is also continuing the innovative trends of its predecessor by developing new clay blends and investing in new processing systems.

The Company.Founded in 1970, Unimin has grown through both customer satisfaction and acquisition to become “North America’s largest producer of silica sand olivine and microcrystalline silica,” says Johnson. International in scope, the company has established a high quality standard for high purity quartz, and it claims to be the world’s primary supplier of nepheline syenite. Responding to the needs of its customers, the company has also become a major producer of feldspar, dolomite, southern bentonite and blended mineral products.

“Our objective is to build integrated systems of superior deposits, innovative production technology, experienced management and an empowered workforce in the pursuit of customer satisfaction and continuous improvement,” Johnson says.

For more information about Unimin, contact Craig Johnson at Unimin Corp., 258 Elm St., New Canaan, CT 06840; (800) 243-9004; fax (203) 972-1378.

WBB Expands Globally

The WBB Group has continued to develop innovative, consistent high-performance clay blends. Intensive research and development in fundamental clay science and technology underlies the increasingly sophisticated methods of clay selection, blending and processing that WBB has achieved. In 1998, WBB Technology Ltd. was established as the Group’s central resource for industrial minerals technology, collaborating with other leading research institutes to “apply science to industrial minerals,” leading to the development of new mineral blends to meet customers’ requirements.

WBB has also been investing worldwide in new facilities to produce the products required. In the U.K., WBB Devon Clays opened a vast new clay processing and packaging plant, increasing its production of refined clays for sanitaryware. In the Asia-Pacific region, new processing facilities in Thailand, Indonesia and China have been built within the last decade, offering manufacturers in the region an opportunity to benefit from consistent, high quality clays, sourced locally. Throughout the 1990s, WBB also sought to reassure customers of its attention to quality in production, gaining ISO 9002 Quality Assurance certification for operations throughout the world.

At the same time, WBB has been moving closer to customers in new market areas. This has involved investment in areas of the world where developing mining operations and logistical infrastructures is both difficult and beyond any previous experience. Recent years have seen the formation and development of WBB Claymin in Thailand; WBB Clayindo in West Kalimantan (Indonesia); WBB Jianbei in Guangdong, China, and Donbas Clays JSC, WBB’s joint venture in the Ukraine.

Increased Product Development.WBB’s expansion has also served both to increase the range of plastic clays and kaolins available to customers, and to secure and preserve precious raw material resources located in some of the world’s most significant deposits. In 1999, the Group doubled its annual clay production from 3 to 6 million metric tons with the acquisition of three Spanish red-firing clay production companies, brought together within a new company, WBB España. Over recent years, WBB Fuchs in Germany has also acquired significant new reserves and operations, and in January 2000 the Czech company Kaolin Hlubany also became part of the WBB Group.

WBB has also been meeting customers’ requirements by taking on responsibility for providing not just individual ceramic body components, but complete prepared ceramic bodies. WBB’s Ceramic Bodies Division has become a major supplier of prepared bodies for the European and South American ceramics industry. German-based WBB Fuchs-Keramische Massen has long been a leader in the development of ceramic body technology, and in 1990 WBB Cerapasta was formed in Portugal to bring the advantages of WBB’s prepared bodies to producers there. Five years later, the long-established Netherlands-based ceramic bodies producer WBB Vingerling joined the Group, and the three operations were merged into a new division—WBB Ceramic Bodies—in 1997. Demonstrating their commitment to the supply of high-quality, consistent and reliable products, all three of these companies have been awarded ISO 9002 Quality Assurance certification.

The most recent advance was the commissioning in 1999 of a new ceramic body plant near Recife in Brazil. WBB Ceramassa produces consistent-performance casting bodies for sanitaryware applications. Serving the developing modern sanitaryware industry in Brazil, these bodies will enable manufacturers to concentrate on the efficient production of high quality ware, and free them from concern over body preparation.

New ceramic body products have been developed to meet the demands of new process technology. Advanced bodies are available for ram pressing, pressure casting and isostatic pressing. Investments in new plants mean that the huge range of bodies can be offered in a wide variety of formats and packaging options—tailor-made to the customer’s requirements.

Ongoing Partnerships.Underlying these technological and geographical developments has been the emergence of a trend for clay suppliers to work in partnership with their customers. WBB’s customers can buy not just a supply of raw materials, but a package including extensive support services. Group products are supported by skilled logistics staff and by expert technical support services experienced in confronting and overcoming product and process problems that customers may experience.

Geographical, technological and logistical strength are the foundations that enable the WBB Group to promise its customers “the right product, in the right place, at the right time.”

For more information about the WBB Group, contact the group’s headquarters at Park House, Courtenay Park, Newton Abbot, Devon, TQ12 4PS England; (44) 1626-332345; fax (44) 1626-322389.

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