PPP: Taking High-End Tile Mainstream

September 1, 2001
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Westminster Ceramics has discovered that high-quality tile doesn’t have to come with a high price tag.

Westminster Ceramics in Bakersfield, Calif., isn’t your average tile manufacturer. Oh, the company makes tile all right—over 1.2 million square feet per year, to be exact. But unlike many other tile manufacturers, quantity and speed aren’t the most important aspects of its business. Instead, the company focuses on design and quality. At .350 in. thick, the tile is nearly one-third thicker than standard wall tile, making it less brittle and capable of matching classic, old-European style decoratives. Each tile requires 100 hours and a great deal of handwork to produce. Each piece is individually hand-fettled and is inspected for smoothness and strength at every step of the process, and at the end of the line, each piece is hand-packed face-to-face to prevent scratching and ensure that the tiles arrive at their destination unmarred.

The tile is about as close to high-end as you can get—without spending a fortune to buy it. In the past 21 years since Westminster Ceramics began its operations in Westminster, Calif., the company has streamlined its operations and manufacturing processes so that while its tile may look “high-end,” it is widely accepted by, and affordable for, a wider audience than those traditionally captivated by such tile—essentially creating a middle-market niche.

“While there are low-end price points and high-end price points, there’s not much in between,” says Tom Hildebrand, vice president of sales and marketing. “We provide an alternative to the very expensive tile that people like but can’t afford, and at the same time provide a very nice, natural upgrade for someone looking at the lower-price-point, high-volume products.”

The Production Process

The manufacture of each tile begins by pressing and extruding greenware using custom dies made on-site. The greenware is dried in a commercial dryer for 40 hours to around 1% moisture and is then fired for 23 hours, transforming the greenware into bisque. After the first firing, each piece is glazed and allowed to mature gradually before it enters one of the company’s two glost kilns for a second, eight-hour firing, which creates a product that is both more traditional and more durable than the single-fire process used in most tile factories.

Everything except the company’s field tile is hand-finished—including all of the trim shapes and decorative pieces. The bisque is hand-inspected, hand-finished and hand-sanded before it goes into the glaze process. The pieces are also hand-inspected and hand-packed in final preparation for shipping.

The process is highly labor intensive, but the company has developed creative ways to keep its employees content and its labor costs to a minimum. “We have about 80 employees, many of whom have been here a long time and are very dedicated,” says Hildebrand. “In many cases, we’ve been able to uniquely cross-train them and have them be flexible with their work hours so that we can maintain an acceptable cost structure. We try to move people around where we need them, and we don’t necessarily have all of the plant running at the same time. We might do bisquing one day and glazing the next, for instance, and some days we just run the warehouse.”

While the company does fill some custom orders, most of its products are inventoried—though generally not for long.

“Whatever is in our standard product line catalogs and brochures is in the warehouse for immediate shipment, but we probably ship 90-95% of what we make,” says Hildebrand. “Most days we literally pull the product and send it the same day it’s made.

“We’re kind of like a tile manufacturing hybrid—a lot of the high-end manufacturers do everything as made-to-order, whereas we’ve got that high-end look immediately available. Usually with the higher-end studios, you have to wait four to six weeks. But in the tile business, people want their order right away—they don’t want to wait around. That’s one of the reasons we’ve been so successful.”

Attention to Detail

While people looking for high-end tile often want faster delivery, they don’t want to settle for a low-end product. At Westminster Ceramics, quality is paramount throughout the entire manufacturing process.

Quality control begins with the raw materials. The company’s clay, which is purchased in bags, is arbitrarily spot-checked to ensure that it meets quality standards. All of the clay is tested before use to check for impurities, such as metal. All other materials are also checked before they’re brought into the production facility.

“We make sure that anything that goes into the process is as perfect as it can be—and that’s really where quality starts,” says Hildebrand. “We work very closely with our suppliers to make sure that whatever materials they give us are high quality. If we don’t accept a shipment, they get it back, and of course that doesn’t do them much good. So they’re usually really good about giving us what we need.”

Glaze materials such as frits and additives are also carefully checked for impurities before being used in the company’s glazes. Westminster makes all of its glazes in-house to ensure complete control over the mix and the colors produced.

Throughout the production line, tile is carefully inspected for smoothness, strength and potential defects at every stage of the process. “We inspect the tile when it comes off the press and out of the bisque kiln, as it goes down the glaze line, and in the final preparation as every piece is hand packed,” says Hildebrand. “At every inspection stage we have someone looking at the tile one at a time, and in some cases we do physical tests on the tile as well. For instance, when our field tile go down the glaze line, we tap each tile and listen to it. If it makes the right sound, it keeps going, while if it doesn’t, it gets pulled off the line.”

The company also tests the moisture content of the greenware before it goes into the bisque kiln and the water absorption of the bisque when it comes out of the bisque kiln. Additionally, all employees have been instructed to notify their supervisor if they see any irregularities at any point in the process.

Because the company won’t ship anything less than perfect tile, losses generally range from 7 to 13%—but this means fewer returns and greater customer satisfaction later on.

“Our superior craftsmanship and attention to detail reflect our commitment to creating tiles that far surpass the industry standard, and our customers appreciate that commitment,” says Hildebrand.

Expanding the Business

In addition to its renowned lines of field tile, decoratives, trim pieces and accent tile, Westminster Ceramics has also been expanding into other areas of the ceramic business. The company does a significant amount of restoration work, matching and replicating tile designs and colors to help restore older buildings to their former glory.

It also slip casts and hand paints custom ceramicware, such as figures, cars, mugs and coasters. “We have several commercial electric kilns that we use for all of our hand-painted products that require a third firing process,” says Hildebrand. “We also have an art department that does the hand painting, as well as logos, custom decals and murals.”

According to Hildebrand, the company’s ability to produce custom ceramicware is unique because of its manufacturing flexibility. “We have the ability to do production work, color matching, hand painting, slip casting and wet clay pressing—and it’s quite rare to have all of these under one roof,” he says.

To capitalize on its wide range of capabilities, Westminster Ceramics has also begun offering contract manufacturing and private label services. “We can make bisque for other companies who then take it and finish it themselves, or we can manufacture finished, unique, dimensional ceramicware designed to meet a company’s commercial resale needs. We’re hoping to significantly grow this side of our business in the future,” says Hildebrand.

Maintaining a Market Niche

So far, Westminster Ceramics has been extremely successful in carving out a new market niche for its high-end, affordable product line. The company anticipates that its success will continue in the future.

“I think Westminster’s potential is tremendous because of our unique market position and value proposition in that we’re a middle-market kind of product,” says Hildebrand. “A lot of people buying lower-end tile would like to move up—in fact, our tile is often sold as an upgrade to much of the traditional large-volume wall tile. In addition, there’s a tremendous amount of opportunity for us as the lower-cost alternative to more expensive products because people can switch without feeling bad about it. They’re not really getting a lower-quality product—they’re just dealing with a company that has figured out how to more efficiently produce a higher-end product.

“The middle market is a good place to be because there are always people who want to move up and others who want to move down. We provide the solution for both.”

For More Information

For more information about Westminster Ceramics, contact Tom Hildebrand at Westminster Ceramics LLC, 3901 E. Brundage Lane, Bakersfield, CA 93307-2921; (661) 326-0249, ext. 34; fax (661) 322-2238; or visit http://www.westminsterceramics.com.



ARTICLE UPDATE: In late August, Westminster Ceramics announced a merger with BananAppeal. Further details will be announced on this site in the future, so please check back again soon.

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