BCR: Expanding the Tradition of Quality

December 28, 2002
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A new kiln is helping Ochs Brick expand its market share while maintaining its reputation for high quality.

Bar code readers located throughout the plant automatically track every kiln car as it goes through each stage of the production process.
Over its more than 100 year history, Ochs Brick Co. in Springfield, Minn., has established a solid reputation throughout the Midwest for producing exceptional quality face brick for both residential and commercial applications. By the late 1990s, however, the brick business was booming across the U.S., and Ochs was eager to expand into the national market. “It was kind of a ‘grow or go’ situation,” explains Phil Weller, plant manager and vice president of production. “Our competition was growing regionally—several of our local competitors had built new plants. Our plant had been well maintained and made good product, and our product was well-identified in the regional market, but we needed to improve our efficiencies and grow our capacity in order to remain competitive.”

The company considered building a new plant but didn’t want to risk compromising the quality of its products by producing them in separate locations. Instead, it opted to build a new dryer and kiln in its existing plant. “We were producing 30 million brick per year, and our existing kiln—a 15-brick-wide by 14-brick-high Swindell Dressler kiln built in 1980—was running at full capacity. We wanted to increase our capacity, particularly for utility-sized brick, while at the same time maintaining our product quality and matching the products being fired through our existing kiln,” Weller says.

Two Kilns, One Product

In the summer of 2000, Ochs Brick began shopping around for suppliers, and it wasn’t long before the company settled on Swindell Dressler, based in Pittsburgh, Pa. “Our existing kiln had served us well for 20 years, was still in good operating condition, and made the product at a particular level of quality that we wanted to continue. Additionally, we knew from the beginning that if we added a second kiln for products going to the commercial market, we wanted to ship matching architectural brick from both kilns. Building a second Swindell Dressler kiln gave us a better chance of being able to do that,” Weller says.

The new kiln would be designed to handle 30 million utility-sized brick per year, bringing the plant’s total capacity to 60 million brick per year. According to Weller, the new dryer was also a key part of the redesign. “Because we would be pushing larger, utility-sized units through the new system, we needed a dryer that could handle the larger units. Swindell Dressler designed a single-track dryer that has much more sophisticated control and a higher level of zone control than our old dryer, enabling it to easily handle our utility products.”

According to Weller, the goal was to integrate both the old and new systems as seamlessly as possible. “We decided to use the same kiln cars, the same tracks and the same extended transfer tracks for both systems. We really wanted to operate them both as a single system so that we could match the product coming out of both kilns as closely as possible,” Weller explains.

The new kiln has doubled Ochs Brick's capacity while increasing the company's ability to produce a high-quality product.

It’s All About Control

A key feature of the new kiln and dryer system was its level and ease of control. A bar code was added to the bottom of each kiln car, and bar code readers were installed throughout the plant—at the setting machine, at the transfers and at other points in the manufacturing process. These readers automatically scan every car as it goes through each stage of the process and then enter that code into a computer database that plant personnel can access from a personal computer. “The car tracking capability of the new system was one of its highest selling points,” explains Shawn Rummel, plant superintendent. “Rather than having employees walk the floor of the plant and make changes at individual locations, we can now control everything through one PC.”

The company was so impressed with this feature that it also had its existing kiln and dryer outfitted with the same controls. Two PCs—one located in the control room and the other located on the plant floor—make it easy for personnel to monitor the location and status of all of the products in the plant.

The system also offers remote troubleshooting capabilities, so that even someone who is not physically in the plant—such as the plant manager or owner—can dial-up through a laptop computer and see exactly what’s happening at each stage of the process. “This capability is very effective when you’re trying to manage an operation while traveling or handling other responsibilities,” says Weller.

Additionally, if a problem occurs, such as a power failure, it can often be corrected remotely. “If the kiln foreman calls and says that the kiln went down, you can hit one button and it will automatically bring the system through full start-up,” explains Rummel. “In fact, that’s the way the re-light of the kiln is conducted even from the plant floor. In our old kiln, it’s a 20-minute process of manually opening all the valves and relighting everything, so this saves a tremendous amount of time and also helps ensure that the process is conducted safely.”

Perhaps even more importantly, the remote troubleshooting capabilities allow Swindell Dressler to lend a high level of customer support—without having to travel across several states if a problem occurs. “When we call Swindell with a problem, they can immediately dial into the system and look at the same data we’re looking at, rather than taking hours and numerous diagrams and faxes to bring them up to speed. And if any changes need to be made, they can make them immediately from their own computer rather than wasting a lot of time traveling out here. It makes troubleshooting and advice from the supplier tremendously more expedient,” Weller says.

The sophisticated controls have also enabled Ochs Brick to operate both kilns with the same number of people previously required to operate just the older kiln. In fact, according to Weller, the combined system is so easy to operate that these same people have also been able to take on other responsibilities throughout the plant.

The controls provide a valuable quality benefit as well. “The system essentially has a learning capability,” explains Weller. “It logs an extensive amount of data, so if we’re running a certain kind of product at a certain firing curve, we can pull up a model curve and identify that as the ideal curve for that product. The next time the system sees that product on the cars (through the bar code tracking system), it will ramp up and gradually arrive at that same curve without us having to enter that into the computer. If we get a better product that time, then we can make that the memory curve for the next batch. It allows us to get better and better each time we make a given product by automatically remembering and then duplicating specific firing curves.”

High Quality on a National Scale

The new kiln began operation in November 2001 and is already well on its way to paying for itself by enabling Ochs Brick to expand its capacity while maintaining a high level of product quality. “The quality of the products coming out of both kilns matches exactly, and that is extremely important as we continue to expand on a national level,” says Weller. “Other manufacturers have tried to match products coming out of different kilns and have not been very successful. We were basically able to achieve that right away, from the initial start-up of the new kiln.”

The kiln is currently firing 15 cars of brick per day—125% of its designed capacity—with recovery rates around 98%. Although current production levels at the plant remain below 60 million brick per year, the added capacity provided by the new kiln will enable Ochs to take its older kiln offline for some improvements over the winter, so that both kilns will be able to meet increased production demands in the spring.

Weller admits that the new state-of-the-art kiln required a significant investment, but he is certain it will pay off in increased sales in the future. “This isn’t the lowest cost-per-unit operation. But we intend to be in business for a long time, servicing a national market and producing a quality product. We’re confident that we made a good investment,” he says.

For more information

For more information about Ochs Brick, contact the company at P.O. Box 106, Springfield, MN 56087; (507) 723-4221; fax (507) 723-4223; or visit http://www.ochsbrick.com.

For more information about Swindell Dressler, contact the company at P.O. Box 15541, Pittsburgh, PA 15244; (412) 788-7100; fax (412) 788-7110; e-mail postmaster@swindelldressler.com; or visit http://www.swindelldressler.com.

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