ONLINE EXTRA: The Element of Control

March 1, 2011
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Potters can take a number of steps to improve their profit margin in a difficult economy.

Due to current economic conditions, many businesses are struggling to make a decent profit. Some businesses are so small that making a profit is difficult under any circumstances, let alone in a tough economy. Whether the business is a one-person pottery in the basement or a huge multinational corporation, every business needs to pay attention to one important detail: control. You must take control of every element of your business.

It is safe to say that most businesses have so many different functions that no single individual can be an expert in all of them. However, it is imperative to consider the various areas in which additional control can be implemented in order to garner a reasonable overview of how everything works together.

When examining a materials-based business such as ceramics, the first item that should be controlled is the incoming raw material. After that, the method by which the materials are mixed and prepared should be scrutinized. Other areas to monitor include the methods of forming, drying and firing. In addition, it is necessary to control the handling and the quality checks of the fired products before shipping.

Incoming Materials

It is often difficult for small companies to run a series of laboratory tests on the incoming raw materials; larger companies can more easily afford to carry out the expensive assessments. It is necessary, then, for the small business owner to pay careful attention to their suppliers.

In the ceramic industry-as in any industry-some suppliers are excellent at maintaining a high quality standard. Other suppliers, however, are only interested in maintaining their sales and are not concerned about losing a customer every now and then. For that reason, companies must choose their suppliers carefully.

Even after that careful selection is finalized, it is a good idea for you to use some simple tests that can be performed on every new batch of incoming materials. For example, new deliveries of powders can be tested in a standard mix with other known ingredients so that the color shrinkage and absorption after firing can be observed. In some cases, a small extrusion test, hand-molding test or casting test may be made.

If you mix your own body, keep several small bags or containers of materials that have been previously tested for future testing purposes. Then, when a new clay or talc comes in, you can mix up the standard batch using the new material with the materials from your standard supply. That way, only the new material is being tested.

Formulation

The next thing that should be controlled is the formulation. Raw materials supplies do sometimes change, and that may require a small alteration in the formulation of your material. If the incoming raw materials have changed permanently, you can proceed to develop a minor change to your mixing formula.

Thin pieces being loaded into a gas-fired kiln. The pieces are loaded in the open, where it is easier for workers to maneuver, and the cars are then placed under the kiln.

Mixing and Preparation

Control over mixing and preparation can be accomplished by using a recipe card that includes not only the formulation but also mixing instructions. In ceramics, it is important to be precise with the amounts of ingredients that are blended together to make a body or casting mix. These proportions should be listed on a recipe card, and the operator should be instructed to follow that recipe card carefully.

You then need to have measuring processes that are accurate and easy to use. In many cases, it is important to actually weigh the amount of water that is being used in a batch, as its volume will change according to the temperature in the production area. Any small change that results from a change in temperature can be enough to damage your mixture.

The primary reason for such precision is the necessity for control, and control is essential for the prevention of losses. Losses create unnecessary costs, so everything you do should be directed toward reducing possible losses due to errors.

In one case, as much as 80% of the material coming out of a dryer had to be scrapped. Such an example underscores the need for extra control in the early stages of production. When the losses were finally reduced to less than 10% of the material, it was then possible to reduce the number of people in the shop while producing the same amount of product. This resulted in a very large improvement to the profit margin.

Fabrication

The next point of control is the manual labor that is needed for fabrication. Fabrication can be done with casting, RAM pressing, extrusion or hand molding. In many cases, mechanical dies are used. Plaster dies wear quite quickly and need to be replaced in order to maintain product standards.

For example, one company manufactured high-end pieces for collectors. Part of the company's quality control system designated that every mold used for casting had to be replaced after 25 casts. Any more casts beyond that would cause enough deterioration in the mold to degrade the quality of the cast part. Take a look at your own operation. Is that a potential problem for you?

In the case of dry pressing, metallic dies are used-but they will also wear to the point where dimensions or shapes can deteriorate. They must also be changed at specific times before too much wear has occurred.

Two factors should be controlled during the casting process. First, the climate in the casting room should be constantly monitored, since changes can affect the way the casting takes place. Second, the precise casting time should be measured carefully. If the climate is unchanged and the recipe for mixing and batching has been followed, then the time will be precisely the same whenever a casting is made. If the casting time varies significantly, this is an indication that a loss of control has occurred somewhere down the line that could lead to rejected products.

In any space where casting takes place, both the temperature and humidity should be kept constant. Since this can be a bit onerous to maintain, it could be helpful to set up a seasonal criteria. When it is cold outside in winter, it can be hot and dry inside (as opposed to summer, when it is hot and humid inside). These issues can be controlled easily and with little expense, and it is certainly worth looking into in order to maintain a high quality standard.

Depending on the ware and climate, efficient dryers can be used to dry overnight. This can speed production and reduce losses due to cracking.

Drying

Drying is a very important feature in the production of ceramics. Many potters ignore drying altogether; those who do dry may not have very much control over drying. Drying should also be conducted in a carefully controlled climate. In fact, a good dryer is a climate-controlled chamber.

The amount of humidity and temperature inside the dryer will vary according to the nature of the ceramic involved (both the mix and the physical size). Any good dryer will allow variations in the setup so that you can change the settings to conform to the requirements of different products. Once again, tight controls should be maintained so that similar products can be dried in exactly the same way. In this manner, the inside of the drying chamber maintains a very specific temperature and relative humidity profile. It is not unusual for periodic dryers to include different profiles for different seasons and sizes of product.

The drying process cannot be properly controlled without a dryer. In many cases, eliminating the losses from inefficient drying alone is enough to cover the costs of new equipment.

Firing

From a climate perspective, firing is a completely different story. A good kiln creates its own climate, so it does not really matter what the outside climate is. However, gas-, electric- and wood-fired kilns are all very different. Each kiln type has its own intended function and should be used accordingly for optimal results.

For example, when firing very large pieces or where there is a large dimension from one wall to the other, fuel firing is preferred over electric firing. On the other hand, when the atmosphere is essential or when the physical sizes involved are small, electric firing can be very effective.

Electric firing using small octagonal kilns is typically cost-effective when only a few kilns are required. Once a business expands to the point where more than just a few of those kilns are needed, it is far less expensive to upgrade to a larger kiln.

Consider that a large octagonal kiln might have a capacity of 7 ft3, but a small gas kiln might have 120 ft3 of capacity. The cost of electricity for the small electric kiln might be $3-5 per firing, while the cost for firing the very large gas kiln might only be $8-10 per fire. If you had six kilns at $6 per fire each, that would be $36 per use. One gas kiln at $8 would save nearly $30 each time you fired. Extend that savings over five fires per week (or 250 per year), and the power savings would be around $7500 per year. The difference in fuel alone will often pay for the larger kiln over a reasonable period of time.

Maintenance is another important consideration. Small electric kilns need constant maintenance. Although regular maintenance is not terribly expensive, failure to keep up can sometimes result in bad firings. A failed heating element in the middle of a fire will result in a temperature non-uniformity that is detrimental to the piece-particularly during a glaze fire.

In addition, labor is a large cost for everyone, even if it is just yourself (you do have other things to do!). All of the time that you spend making ceramics cannot be used selling ceramics.

End view of a cart-style dryer with a multi-layered aluminum cart in position. The rolling cart facilitates efficient material handling.

Inspections and Shipping

You should consider not only the possibilities of damage that can occur during labor but also those that can happen during material handling. In each step of production, control must be exerted over the material handling so that the material is carefully handled and that the handling is kept to a minimum. Whenever you have to remake something (because of a mistake or because someone drops or breaks a piece), the extra costs can add up to a significant loss.

Control over packing and shipping is also important, because that is a source of breakage for both you and the customer. Many small ceramic companies receive a lot of complaints from their customers due to broken parts after an item has been shipped. Make sure that items are packed carefully and that the type and style of packaging is suitable for the shipping that is involved.

Exert Control

Although these ideas are simplified, they will hopefully help to ignite your thinking about exerting control over every part of your process. It may be that some aspects of your business are under very good control, but there may also be some other processes that could benefit from significant changes.

These changes are things you can do right now without worrying about the state of the economy. As you gain more control over your operation, you will find that you have fewer problems with growth-and you will enjoy a larger net profit margin.

For additional information, contact Ceramic Services, Inc. at 1060 Park Ave., Bensalem, PA 19020; (215) 245-4040; fax (215) 638-1812; e-mail kilns@kilnman.com; or visit www.kilnman.com.

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