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KILN CONNECTION: Long Year, Indeed

February 1, 2010
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In her December 2009 “Inside CI” column, Susan Sutton commented that “Business-wise, 2009 was the worst year that many of us have experienced.” As I think back over the year-a year that, business-wise, I would essentially like to forget-I would certainly agree.

I visited a number of factories that were strangely silent; in the past, they’d been bustling with activity. It’s an eerie feeling to walk through a huge plant that has gone to sleep-no noise, no people, no activity. A plant turned into a graveyard is a scary place. In the case of some plant closures, I have followed auction sites and have seen equipment that is worth millions selling for peanuts, which has increased my perception of just how bad this economy is.

But Susan also pointed out that she finds inspiration from the “spirit of innovation, determination and teamwork” in our industry. I also agree and think that this is part of the DNA of ceramics. When you are in the “ceramic life,” you learn to adjust to the variability and unpredictability of ceramics. It seems as if we are always trying to figure out what is necessary to solve a plethora of seemingly voodoo-like problems, which most managers and workers in other fields do not encounter.

To survive in this business, it’s necessary to be creative and soldier on to find the solution to difficult problems. Since this is our day-to-day modus operandi, it’s little wonder that our industry has the ability to overcome economic obstacles when they have so much in common with our day-to-day life in the manufacture of ceramics.

Output Reduction

Let’s get back to the topic that I should be writing about-which is kilns. One of the issues that I have tried to help my clients face this year is the necessary reduction in kiln output to match the drastic reduction in demand-sometimes as much as 50%. Since we all know that tunnel kilns use the least energy per pound of product when they are running at capacity, slowing down the kiln results in a higher per-pound energy cost at the very time when cash is tight and reduced costs are needed. The alteration of burner settings, time/temperature shifting, etc. are handy techniques to improve the situation, but the fact remains that slow-cycle tunnel kilns are energy hogs.

On the other hand, I have observed that those plants that use periodic kilns seem to be weathering the downturn much more readily. Since periodic kilns need not be fired unless there is product demand, they don’t consume energy when they sit unused. While it is true that the energy usage of a periodic kiln is typically twice as much as a tunnel kiln at capacity, excessively long cycles in a tunnel kiln result in control difficulties and, frequently, reduced yield, with energy consumption approaching or exceeding the periodic kilns running at normal cycles. When we add the fact that labor costs for the tunnel kiln go on 24/7, despite diminished capacity, low output easily tips the balance in favor of periodic kilns as a component in your firing systems.

Future Planning

Looking to the future, what can we expect? The economists that I read don’t have any real answers, but it seems as if the best-case scenario will be one of slow growth with continued volatility. As your demand ramps up, use the lessons you’ve learned in this downturn.

Consider how the recession has affected your firing and labor costs. As you add firing capacity, perhaps using a periodic kiln or two will provide some flexibility, or at least a little bit of protection from the drastic changes that may be a part of this economy for years to come. If you can find the right used kiln, consider refurbishing it and making it a productive asset for small change. Maybe it will even give you a leg up on the next economic downturn.

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