INVESTING IN CERAMICS: Lasting Bonds

September 1, 2007
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WesBond Corp. has enjoyed over 30 years of providing refractory bonding systems and related products.

President Wes Jones stands in front of a 60-cubic-foot V-blender. WesBond pre-blends 1000-lb master batches of proprietary formulations for the uniform bonding of ceramic fibers.


When Wes Jones co-founded the company that is now WesBond Corp. over 30 years ago, he was looking for a change. He'd worked at DuPont for 25 years and was ready to start running his own show. Consequently, Jones and another DuPont alum-Wes Weidman-founded Wesolite Co. in 1976.

The partners' original intention was to license and produce a 1200°F, perlite-based thermal insulation that DuPont had developed but not commercialized. "We started compression molding pipe insulation, and that gave us a little bit of cash flow to stay in business," says Jones.

Technical Manager John Vandermeer working at the furnace station in the WesBond laboratory. The company uses several high-temperature furnaces to heat-treat ceramic fiber forms.

Plan B

Unfortunately, the small startup was having problems competing with much larger companies, and Jones sought alternatives in higher-temperature applications. "We started shifting to ceramic shells for investment casting, as well as bonding ceramic fibers," says Jones. "There wasn't anybody that specialized in supplying technical service in the bonding of ceramic fibers. It was a fairly new industry then."

Jones and Weidman began working with colloidal silica, which they were both familiar with from their work at DuPont. A cationic starch is used as a binder, and the colloidal silica is flocced onto the ceramic fiber. "We did some research, found the best cationic starches for the application, and improved the process," explains Jones. "And we found cheaper alternatives as well, like using less-expensive aluminosilicate materials as binders."

Over the years, the company has also developed its own proprietary binders for use in vacuum forming. After purchasing the fiber from a refractory manufacturer, companies mix the dry binder material and some water in a large tank to bond the fibers together. "Our material will disperse, and the cationic starch locks it onto the fibers," says Jones. "The mixture is then pulled through a mold to form whatever shape is required."

Plant Manager Peter Dowling stands by the liquid-binder mixing area in the company's production facility. WesBond produces refractory binders based on both colloidal silica and colloidal alumina.

While not large (Jones estimates that 40-50 U.S. companies are involved), the vacuum forming industry is enjoying growth from increasing demand for imitation gas fireplace logs. "That's taken off in the last six or seven years to where it's 20-30% of the market for vacuum-formed ceramic fibers," says Jones. Additional applications include furnace burner chambers, tapping cones for aluminum smelters, and pouring cups and riser sleeves for foundries.

The company also developed some advanced liquid colloidal silicas. "Megasol is a patented large-particle-size colloidal silica sol that enables shapes to be made with  higher inorganic content, which makes them much stronger once they've been taken up to temperature," says Jones. "We're also one of the few companies to make positively charged colloidal silica. We put alumina on the surface to change it from a negative to a positive charge."

WesBond's most recent development is a refractory fiber floccing and bonding system that replaces phenolic resins, which are considered hazardous. The new system contains cationic starch to floc the aluminosilicate binder on the fibers, and a non-toxic heat-set resin that sets up during drying to give extra hardness, strength and resistance to moisture. In addition, the new system is cristobalite-free at use temperature, which eliminates a common source of thermal shrinkage problems, as well as health concerns.

Several vacuum-formed fiber shapes, including gas-fireplace logs, a liquid metal tapping cone and gas fireplace boards, in the WesBond laboratory. Also shown are two investment casting slurries ready for testing.

Continued Success

Today, WesBond does about $2.5 million worth of business annually with just five employees, including Jones (other personnel include John Vandermeer, director of research and development; Wes M. Jones, operations manager and Jones' son; and Peter Dowling, plant and production manager). Jones estimates that the company's refractory bonding products comprise 90% of its sales, but it is still involved with the investment casting market. "Investment casting is a much bigger industry than vacuum forming," he says. "It's about a $3.6 billion industry in North America alone, with around a couple of hundred companies. We don't serve it directly, but we provide R&D and some of the binders for a company we've been associated with for almost our whole 30-year history."

In fact, research and development services are an important aspect of the company. "We built a pilot plant, and if somebody wants a bond of refractory fibers to reach a certain temperature or to have a certain density, we can develop a composition for them and then tell them how to make it. I guess you'd say we spend a lot of time on research and development."

While it was difficult starting off as a small company with no name recognition initially back in 1976, cultivating the company's product offerings and customer relationships has been a key factor in WesBond's longevity. "It doesn't matter how much technology you've got if you can't get people to accept that you know what you're talking about, and that your products will work for them," says Jones. "We had to gain the confidence of the people who were doing the vacuum forming and show that our products would work for them. Once we were accepted, we had to decide how much of the market we could effectively service, or could get. We've been growing with the market."

After three decades with the company he helped found, Wes Jones is now looking for another change-retirement. He's decided to hand over the reins within the next two years, and has started giving the company to the employees (collectively, they currently own 49%). "They've worked hard and they deserve it," says Jones. "We want WesBond to keep operating for the next 30 years."  

For more information, contact WesBond at 1135 E. 7th St., Wilmington, DE 19801; (302) 655-7917; fax (302) 656-7885; or visit www.wesbond.com.

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