PPP - Signed by the Hand that Made It

May 11, 2000
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Our purpose is to provide the finest quality hand made floor and wall tile possible.” This statement stands as the credo of Epro, Inc., the largest manufacturer of handmade tile in the U.S.

Founded in 1963, Epro currently occupies a 33,000 square foot facility in Westerville, Ohio. The company was recently purchased by James Fry from Suzanne Stilson Edgar. Fry has been in the ceramic tile industry for 33 years, and also owns Seneca Tile of Attica, Ohio.

Purchasing Epro holds a special significance for Fry. His first job in the tile business was running the tunnel kiln at Epro at night while attending college during the day. Little did he realize his college job was the beginning of a bright and enjoyable career.

“Epro, Inc., has a long tradition of bringing a unique product to the market that stands alone in quality and aesthetics,” says Fry. “It is a look that is not reproducible by machines. At a time when other manufacturers boast that their tile is never touched by human hands, we are proud to say our tile is touched many times. I plan to build upon the manufacturing techniques and enhance the current offerings, while maintaining the intrinsic beauty that only human hands can create."

The Process

Epro’s tile goes through several stages of production before it is shipped to the distributor. The first step is the mixer, where each batch of the dry ingredients—8 tons in all—are mixed. From that point, the material goes into a pug mill, where water is added and the clay is mixed via the auger system. Augers are large mixing blades that simultaneously move the material through the equipment while mixing it.

The next step is a lower pug mill with a vacuum pump attached to it, which pulls the air out of the mixture. The augers in the lower pug mill then push the mixture through an extruder, where it is formed and wire-cut into slugs—blocks of clay. “The vacuum process and the extrusion process add structural integrity to the product, as opposed to simply putting it into a mold,” says Fry.

From that point, the slugs are put into a RAM™ Press. “We use plaster dies for our RAM™ Presses, and we run our clay fairly wet,” Fry says. “This results in a fairly malleable piece of material pressed into the shape of a tile.”

The tile is then trimmed by hand and loaded onto a mangle drier, which is used to dry it to the point where it can be easily handled. The mangle drier goes up into the ceiling of the plant, and rows of shelves travel on a chain system. Tiles are loaded onto the shelves and then travel up through an atmosphere that is warmed using recycled heat from Epro’s tunnel kiln. When the shelves reach the ceiling, the chain system brings them all the way back down to be unloaded. The drying process, which runs continuously, takes about eight hours from start to finish. Up to 18,000 tiles can be in the drier at once.

After the drying is completed, the fate of the tile depends on its intended end use. If it will be sold as an unglazed product, the tile goes directly to the kiln. If the tile will be sold as glazed pieces, it goes from the drier to the glazing area, where glazes are applied by spraying. “We make all of our own glazes from our original formulas,” Fry says. “We make them all from the components; we don’t buy a prepackaged glaze and then add water to it.”

Application is done either by hand or in a booth, depending on the size of the batch. Larger batches are typically put through the booth for spraying, while glazing for smaller batches is done by hand with a spray gun. “Literally, it’s just putting in a little spray paint in the container, and someone holds it there and sprays it on the tile, which is loaded on boards,” explains Fry. “It’s really not that sophisticated.”

Epro has two kilns—one shuttle and one tunnel—and the size of the tile determines which kiln it will be fired in. “The really larger sizes, like the 12” x 12,” we put through the shuttle kiln,” says Fry. “The other sizes go through the tunnel.”

Each firing cycle lasts 18 hours, with a peak temperature of 1950°F. Epro’s tunnel kiln works around the clock, continuously firing tiles, while the shuttle kiln fires about 4,500 pieces per day.

The Individuality

“Epro’s founder had a saying,” relates Fry. “‘If two tiles look alike, you can return them.’ And even today, in our process we are trying to do everything we can to get away from the mechanical look—where one looks like the next.”

The company fosters this individuality primarily through the use of plaster dies. “We chose plaster because it wears,” Fry says, “And we want every single tile to look different.” In fact, the dies typically last only for about a thousand presses—one day’s work at Epro. As the dies break down, they imprint each tile with its own individual markings.

The handling of the tile as it moves through the production process also affects its finished appearance. Epro doesn’t take great care to keep the tile bodies in mint condition—every chip or scrape makes each tile unique.

Inconsistencies also result from the unevenness of the spray glazing application, “and also because the body of our tile is basically shale, which would clearly have some impurities in it that will affect the glaze color,” says Fry. “If there’s a certain concentration of something within the shale, then that will come up through the glaze,” affecting the color and overall appearance of the tile.

And then there’s the thumbprint. Occasionally, after the tile has been pressed, it comes down the production line and an Epro worker will see that one of the corners hasn’t filled out completely—so they’ll fill it in with their thumbprint. “It started out as a conservation measure—so the whole piece wouldn’t have to be recycled,” says Fry. “And now it’s become a trademark.” About one tile in a seven-square-foot area features the actual thumbprint of one of its creators.

The Product

Epro’s tiles are sold through a network of distributors, with about 75-80% of those sales going to residential customers. Thirteen product lines include both wall and floor tile selections.

Accent tiles are often in floral, ivy or herbal themes. The Wildflower Collection, for example, features hand painted representations of violets, asters and buttercups, to name a few. And parsely, lavender and tarragon are among the herbs available in the a la carte Herbal Collection.

One recent addition was the Bob Timberlake™ Tile Collection. “Our newest line was a complete departure from what we’ve done in the past in that we’re a licensee for Bob Timberlake, an artist who has parlayed his artistic abilities into designing finishings and furnishings,” says Fry.

The new line, designed for the Bob Timberlake Home Furnishings™ division, incorporates a country living theme in each of four seasonal collections representing spring, fall, summer and winter. Each of the four lines composing the collection include a variety of relief, deco and liner tiles designed with flowers, leaves, nuts and berries indigenous to the four seasons.

“As a company, we’re really on the right track with this licensee agreement,” Fry says. “It’s brought a renewed interest in our products."

Today’s Biggest Challenges

According to Fry, the company’s biggest challenge today is maintaining and growing its market share in an every-changing marketplace. There is a breadth of products available to the consumer today that were not available 10 or even five years ago. All manufacturers are searching for ways to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack. Epro is no different. The company strives to make the consumer aware that there is a small manufacturer in Westerville, Ohio, providing a very special product that cannot be found elsewhere in the world.

To overcome this challenge, Epro has taken several steps. The company has endeavored to select distributors that are known in their local areas for providing the finest offerings of high-end products. These companies typically have designers on staff who assist the customer with custom installations. “Epro customers have the confidence and the desire to make a statement with their finishing choices,” says Fry. “Their home is a reflection of who and what they are.”

Epro also has established a tradition of innovative and creative designs. “New product lines are released that are fresh and in keeping with today’s preferences, but with the timelessness only good design can provide,” says Fry. “Our customers expect and deserve a product that stands alone in the sea of commodity tile offerings.”

Fry is optimistic as he looks to the future for Epro. “We’re very well positioned because we’re niche-oriented,” he says. “We’re not competing with those huge manufacturers who are butting heads. We have a really unique product that won’t be for everybody—but there will always be those select few who will really look for it.”

For More Information

Contact James Fry, Epro, Inc., 156 E. Broadway, Westerville, OH 43081; (614) 882-6990; fax (614) 882-4210.

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