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Knowing that I have participated on both sides of the purchasing transaction in some of my previous corporate lives, many of my current clients quiz me about the kiln buying process—“How can our company buy the right kiln, for the best price?” This is always a tough question, because different buyers have different objectives, and the “right” kiln for one is usually the wrong kiln for another. Plus, the “best” price is almost never the lowest price. Several questions must be answered by the kiln buying team, plant management and marketing groups to arrive at a positive result.
First Things FirstThe kiln is the common thread in practically all of ceramics, yet there seems to be a lack of information regarding overall design. The right kiln system can be a valuable and productive asset that provides for current needs and flexibility for the future. The wrong kiln can easily turn into the very worst investment imaginable. Remember that an excellent kiln can process well-made green products into quality, salable ware, while a poorly conceived kiln has the capability of damaging or degrading a significant output of your factory. How can you make sure that you get what you need?
Let’s start at the beginning. You need more firing capacity, or you have a special product requiring special firing conditions. You have evaluated your existing installed kiln base and have determined that a modification to existing kilns will not produce the required results. At this point, most manufacturers write a bid specification defining the product to be fired, with estimates, sometimes quite detailed, defining the kiln size, cycles, etc. They then send the specification to several kiln suppliers, requesting a proposal. These are good steps to follow, but they are only the initial steps.
Other ConsiderationsHave you considered the important categories of future demand and product mix, minimization of labor and energy consumption? Are you aware of the different firing systems available today—proportional, excess air, combination fossil fuel and electric, and various pulse systems? What is the environmental impact of the future kiln? What about instrumentation? Several instrument companies have been eliminated through consolidation in the past few years—what should you purchase to insure that your control system will be supported over the next several years? And last, a new kiln may require new skills on the part of your kiln management team. Who will train them and insure that their talents are sufficient to continuously improve the firing operation with the new kiln?
With regard to the kiln’s physical design, is the geometry logical for heat treatment? Is the design consistent with low heat losses? Are the zones of control logical? For example, in a shuttle kiln, does the zone arrangement account for different losses at the doors, as well as the fact that heat rises? Or are there simply three or four large zones that do not account for these obvious differences? Have you evaluated different refractory materials, balancing cost against heat losses, and any special requirements in the case of exposed ceramic fibers? Is the combustion system design consistent with published standards; does it possess appropriate pressure and flow monitoring locations? Does it meet applicable control and safety standards?
Evaluating the ContractIf you have covered all of the items listed above, what about the commercial section of the contract? Should you insist on guarantees with liquidated damages to provide assurance of performance? On the other hand, are performance premiums of value to promote superior performance? Have you spoken to at least three former clients of each supplier to obtain an objective evaluation of performance, delivery and after sales services?
A kiln is a 15-year investment, and even a small kiln can fire millions of dollars worth of product in its lifetime. A properly designed kiln can provide higher yield, use less energy and provide more flexibility than a less robust design. The “standard” comparison spreadsheet can be helpful in making a comparison between different manufacturers, but the spreadsheet should contain a lot more information than that found in the proposal quotation alone. You must ask the right questions to discover the true quality of design. A kiln is not a commodity, and generally, the lowest first price is likely to be the costliest over the kiln’s lifetime.