Brick and Structural Clay

BRICK & CLAY RECORD: Innovation Matters

May 1, 2004
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Superior Clay Corp. has found a successful new niche by reinventing its product line and manufacturing process

Superior Clay produces the Rumford fireplace system, which is known for its efficiency, smoke-free operation and ease of installation.


What do you do when the product you make is no longer competitive? This is a problem that many ceramic manufacturers are facing today as a result of unfair international trade practices. But for Superior Clay Corp., located in Uhrichsville, Ohio, the problem began several decades ago, when plastic pipe made most applications of clay sewer pipe obsolete and put dozens of manufacturers out of business. Rather than succumb to its fate as a clay sewer pipe manufacturer, Superior Clay had the fortitude to reinvent its product line and manufacturing process to become even more successful than it was originally. By being resourceful and reevaluating its strengths, the company has developed a successful niche that now makes it a leader in the structural clay industry.

Finding a New Niche

When the McClave family purchased Superior Clay's Uhrichsville plant in 1970, the clay sewer pipe business was still going strong. The plant used 42 beehive kilns to fire sewer pipe of all shapes and sizes, and it could hardly keep up with demand. Within just a few short years, however, plastic pipe had gained an immense foothold in the market, and by the late 1970s, clay sewer pipe was rapidly becoming obsolete.

Fortunately, Superior Clay had also made some sideline products on request-including chimney tops (or chimney pots, as they are commonly called) and fireplace flue liners-so as the volume of clay pipe disappeared, the company redoubled its efforts in these other areas. It also began to produce building restoration products, such as dentil and cornice molding, made from fired clay and glazed to reproduce the sandstone appearance found in many historic public buildings.

Today, Superior Clay produces some of the finest decorative chimney pots in the U.S., and its architectural products are found on many high-end homes and buildings. Physical samples are sent to Uhrichsville from all over the world, and the company's craftsmen produce plaster molds that can precisely replicate the original parts. The company also produces the Rumford fireplace system, which forms an efficient transition between the fireplace and clay flue liners, and is known for its efficiency, smoke-free operation and ease of installation.

According to Todd McClave, Superior Clay's president and the fourth generation in his family to work in Ohio's structural clay industry, making these complex shapes is a combination of art and science and requires rare skill levels. For example, making a restoration molding involves multiple steps, originating with inquiries from architects. Sometimes a model is created by hand to form a pattern from which a plaster mold is made. Careful shrinkage calculations are needed to ensure shape conformity to the original part. From there, a combination of techniques is necessary to produce a first-quality reproduction.

Making chimney pots is another art-and-science endeavor. Plaster molds are hand-packed to produce the initial shape, and then a variety of hand tools are used to produce the decorative surface effects that make Superior Clay's products stand apart from the others in the marketplace.

McClave is quick to credit his employees for the company's continued growth. "Their expert skills take years to develop. There's no question that our people are the reason for our success," he says.

The kiln controls and computer for Superior Clay's new kiln.

Investigating a New Firing Technology

Even the most highly skilled artisans, however, require the right tools to successfully complete their products. As Superior Clay's business in chimney pots, fireplace flue liners, building restoration products, Rumford fireplaces and other products grew in the early '80s, three of its periodic kilns were converted to high-velocity firing to keep up with production demand. In 1985, a large Hendryx shuttle kiln was installed. Finally, the company took a big step in 2001 and began investigating the purchase of a modern shuttle kiln.

McClave's goals for the new kiln included:

  • Faster firing cycles
  • The ability to uniformly fire an extreme range of setting densities on each kiln car
  • Reduced labor and less "hard" work for kiln car loading and unloading
  • Excellent firing accuracy to produce the best possible firing environment for expensive and complicated shapes
  • Optimum fuel efficiency

As McClave began investigating kilns from a number of different suppliers, he read an article in Ceramic Industry about GFC Kilns in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.1 The company uses pulse firing, sophisticated programmable logic control (PLC), proprietary power failure protection and a proprietary kiln lining to achieve systems with enhanced temperature uniformity, user-friendly controls, failsafe operation and a long kiln lining life.

McClave was immediately intrigued. Although he was concerned about dealing with a company over 10,000 miles from Ohio, he soon learned that the kiln control system can be accessed from anywhere in the world for firing assistance or problem diagnosis.

"The PLC system, with its excellent supervisory software, was a very important consideration," McClave says. "But what I especially liked were the innovative, yet well proven design concepts that GFC possessed."

For example, the kiln uses simple, low-maintenance pulse valves for pulse firing. Every burner on the kiln is individually controlled as a separate zone, making the kiln perfectly adaptable to different setting heights and densities. Additionally, while the kiln is fiber-lined for low mass and efficiency, the interior hot face has a hard cordierite shell to protect the fiber and minimize air contamination.

"As far as I could tell, the performance capability of this kiln was the best available anywhere," McClave says.

A fired car on the automated unload/load turntable.

Improving Quality and Efficiency

GFC set up firing trials in its Melbourne pilot plant and developed optimized firing cycles for Superior Clay that reduced firing times to a fraction of the plant's former requirements. The company also developed a customized automated car handling system with an unload/load turntable that slashed labor hours and intensity.

After more than two years of operation, the kiln has proven to be the right selection for Superior Clay. "The kiln has exceeded our expectations in every category," McClave says. "On a scale of 1-10, I would rate the kiln's performance, quality and fuel consumption a perfect 10, and GFC's service and technical backup an 11."

Superior Clay has grown through innovation and invention, refusing to give up in the face of adversity. The company has seen its sales remain strong over the past decade, and its new kiln is providing significant energy and labor savings, along with improvements in quality and production efficiency. Deep roots in structural clay, along with an underlying optimism that the company will succeed, will undoubtedly play a large part in ensuring a bright future.

For more information about Superior Clay Corp., contact the company at P.O. Box 352, Uhrichsville, OH 44683; (800) 848-6166 or (740) 922-4122; fax (740) 922-6626; e-mail superiorclay@tusco.net ; or visit http://www.superiorclay.com .

For more information about GFC Kilns, contact the company at 227 Princes Hwy., Dandenong, Melbourne, Victoria 3175, Australia; (613) 9792-5211; fax (613) 9792-5605; e-mail gfc@gfckilns.com.au .au; or visit http://www.gfckilns.com.au .

About the Author

Ralph Ruark is a registered professional engineer with degrees in ceramic engineering and business, and 28 years of experience in the ceramic industry. He formed Ruark Engineering Inc. several years ago and serves as a technical consultant to a number of ceramic manufacturers and kiln companies, including GFC Kilns. He is dedicated to assisting ceramic and structural clay companies with a variety of kiln and firing needs, leading kiln analysis efforts, providing training expertise, and improving operations. Ruark can be reached at (941) 360-3111, fax (941) 360-3211, e-mail ruarkeng@aol.com or online at http://www.ruarkengineering.com .

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