Brick and Structural Clay

Focus on Heavy Clay

Present and future challenges for the heavy clay supply chain were recently discussed at SACMI’s Heavy Clay Open Day.

On September 26, 2012, SACMI held an Open Day during Tecnargilla. Attended by major international players in the industry—from producers to certifiers—theSACMI event looked into questions posed by future scenarios where the crucial issues will be sustainability, efficiency and product/process innovation. For example, what future scenarios will the heavy clay industry have to deal with? Is there really such a thing as a “zero-carbon home?” Are partnerships and mergers really the only way forward for the double-figure downturn being experienced by European markets?

The event began with a visit to Sacmi Imola’s new Heavy Clay lab and introductions by Pietro Cassani, general manager, and Stefano Lanzoni, business manager, Heavy Clay Division. Next, Heimo Scheuch, managing director of Wienerberger and president of TBE, discussed the heavy clay supply chain. “On the one hand, the heavy clay supply chain needs a heavy dose of realism: getting machine costs down, implementing more reliable, profit-oriented technology and improving the way replacement and maintenance are handled are not just important—they are essential,” he said.

Scheuch went on to explain that “the sector is innovating extensively, in terms of both process and product. That’s why the number of future challenges will generate at least as many opportunities, which can be maximized if everyone along the supply chain, from public bodies to professionals, from producers to dealers, works as a team.”

The global macroeconomic scenario within which the industry operates is hardly in the best of health. “The global value of derivatives has reached $600,000 billion, against a real economy worth just $65 billion,” said Lorenzo Bellicini, manager of Cresme. “From this viewpoint, the crisis would seem far from over.”

And Italy? “The country has made huge strides is restoring credibility,” Bellicini explained, “but it still has to be said that growth was poor even before the financial crisis, with Italy coming only 145th out of 148 countries in a survey of GDP growth from 2000 to 2010.”

However, the heavy clay sector and the construction industry in general have been able to buck this trend in several ways. “While the economy was slowing down, the industry saw the biggest ever rise in fixed capital,” Bellicini said. In other words, house prices, along with the number of home purchases and the level of investment in new construction, had risen for 15-20 years. Then came the collapse: a 27% drop in investment, a staggering 51% fewer new-builds, a reduction of up to 39% in non-residential construction and a 27% drop in public works.

“But in 2012, the Italian economy will still see 500,000 home purchases, a very high figure by any standard,” Bellicini said. “What the industry needs to do is reorganize according to the new size and needs of the market by investing in project financing, services, new technology, environmentally friendly home building and extending the lifespan of completed works.”

Technology and the Heavy Clay Supply Chain

From a “macro” viewpoint, the industry must pay careful attention to technology, segments and products within the same supply chain, but to different areas. The heavy clay industry will have to focus in a more ordered way on market segments that have been neglected until now, such as maintenance, which alone is worth €36 billion (~ $47 billion) a year. 

However, while Italy struggles in the midst of the greatest crisis in its recent history, there are countries like Russia where construction is still a driving force within a market with ever-greater social, cultural and regulatory attention to product quality. This is why Aleksej Vjacheslavovich Gavrilov, CEO of the LSR Group, a St. Petersburg company founded in 1993 and now a leading player in the construction industry, was invited to discuss his experiences at the Open Day.

According to Gavrilov, “In Russia, demand for all brick products has grown enormously, from insulating bricks (1.2 billion pieces per year in 2011) to face bricks (1.8 billion pieces in 2011), an upswing in which LSR, with its 160 million pieces a year, plays a leading role, while successfully complying with new, stricter EU-like legislation regarding size, frost resistance, moisture absorption, and a whole series of other parameters that distinguish quality bricks from their low-cost counterparts.”

And sustainability? “Those who think that materials like wood are more sustainable than brick are simply wrong,” said Ulrich Klammsteiner, technical manager of Sud Tirol-based CasaClima (KlimaHaus). The point is not so much the legislation—which is as advanced in Italy as it is in other key European economies—as its enforcement, he said. Home buyers, in fact, find it almost impossible to obtain reliable information on energy efficiency, starting with the materials used in construction. He said the KlimaHaus solution is a “seal of approval” only granted after a comprehensive series of checks and inspections.

“We need to find the right tools with which to inform citizens of the need for energy-efficient buildings,” Klammsteiner said. He also pointed out that efficiency is the crucial concept against which the heavy clay supply chain needs to measure itself. And it needs to do so by looking beyond design and construction to embrace the wider concept of “town planning,” which concerns not just the energy efficiency and emissions of individual buildings, but also returns on investment, area-wide consumption (as part of global environmental costs), and improvements that can be made to existing buildings. And the relevant legislation? It’s not always up to the job—even in Europe, which still hasn’t clearly defined the concept of zero-energy buildings, Klammsteiner said.

Brazil is the world’s sixth-largest economy, and its heavy clay industry is growing fast, albeit in an atypical business environment. “Growing together with family-run businesses, which employ so many people and therefore sustains consumption levels, is a vocation we aim to defend,” said Luis Carlos Barbosa Lima, president of Anicer, the main labor and union association of the Brazilian ceramic industry. He said “entrepreneurial gigantism” is by no means a necessary model, as the brick industry’s “2,000-year history has shown itself to be one of the most sustainable industries there is.”

Following Anicer’s commissioning of a Canadian consultancy to carry out a comparative study, Lima points out that the statistics are clearly on his side: “Taking into consideration the entire brick lifecycle, its contribution to climate change is 69% lower than cement, 57% lower than using non-renewable sources, and 72% lower in terms of water consumption,” he said. Comparisons were made considering a brick lifecycle of 20-30 years, “but everyone knows that bricks last far longer,” he said.

In short, it’s not brick that is unsustainable: it’s the lifestyle, society, and business models and production processes that need to be—and can be—improved and changed. Lima said he sees these as the new trends in the heavy clay industry, which in Brazil means 6,900 companies, business volumes of 18 billion Brazilian, and employment—directly or indirectly— for 1.3 million people. Lima cites official figures estimating that over the next 10-11 years, at least 20 million new homes will be needed to deal with the housing shortage.

The common thread running through the day’s event was “from market needs to market trends.” The heavy clay sector will increasingly have to deal with the concept of social innovation, offering a systemic vision of the humble brick that quite simply acknowledges and insists on the fact that brick has always been—and perhaps always will be—an intrinsic part of our homes. Hence the crisis (from the Greek word krisis, meaning “a testing time”) brings with it, in this industry more than others, opportunities for industrial expansion and higher employment. 

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