What makes for a good kiln operating strategy? In my worldwide consulting efforts, I am often confronted by this question by the plant manager, the vice president of operations, or even the president of a company. First of all, obtaining proper, accurate data is certainly a critical function. What data is needed, and the frequency of gathering that data varies a bit, depending on the type of kiln and the presence of a decent data acquisition system. Anyone who is familiar with kiln operations can develop a checklist and obtain the required data (e.g., temperature, pressure, % oxygen, fuel consumption, zone output range, etc.), but the most important factor is not the data itself—it is having the right person in charge of the kiln operations.
If you have the right person in place, you needn’t worry about what data is required, because he or she will know how to determine the required information. Data is only a tool; it is the kiln manager who will use that data and analyze it, looking for trends and problems that might eventually result in product defects. It takes talent, of course, but the main attribute of truly great kiln operations managers is a passion for continually improving the operation.
Several years ago, I visited a client who had just hired an engineer who was relatively new to the kiln operations field. Jack had basic knowledge, but was a long way from an experienced expert. The client’s kiln was operating in an acceptable range of fuel consumption and yield of first-quality product. There was room for improvement, but all in all, it was fine.
After a week of analysis and a few days of intensive training at the plant, we made a kiln checklist that defined what data to obtain with the appropriate frequency. I have made this kind of routine visit many times over the past 14 years: visit the plant, analyze the kiln(s) and hold seminars on combustion, fluid flow, and kiln operations. I am happy to say that this always leads to some level of improvement.
In this instance, however, the improvement was even greater than usual. Jack was not a “kiln guy” when I met him. Nevertheless, he was smart and absolutely driven to understand what he had to do to make his kiln operate as well as the best kiln on the planet. I received so many weekly emails and phone calls during the next year—replete with more questions than I often had time to answer—that I realized that I was earning about $1 per hour for my training visit. But his passion to have the very best operation was infectious, and I started to look forward to his next series of questions and observations.
Over the year following my single visit, he was able to achieve incredible success. It was his success, not mine; I only provided the tools to help. His continuous efforts resulted in a savings in yield and energy that amounted to about 10 times his salary in that first year.
He attacked the kiln with such vigor and determination that there was no way he could have failed, even given his limited knowledge at the start of our work together. When he lacked knowledge, he acquired it. When the data was confusing, he obtained more, and correlated other potential variables to make the data useful and valid. After his short tenure, I am certain that the kiln never ran as well again.
Consider that one large tunnel kiln is the costliest asset in your plant—one that fires millions of dollars in products and consumes billions (if not trillions) of BTUs per year. Consider that in the typical factory processing ceramics, every single piece of ware relies on the kiln firing for development of the proper color, strength, and other physical properties.
Put another way, the kiln has the opportunity to make 100% good products, or to destroy all of the good work that has been done up to the point of firing, all the while consuming enough energy in a day to heat 10 homes for a month. If your kiln manager doesn’t know Jack, you ought to be looking for one.
Any views or opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not represent those of Ceramic Industry, its staff, Editorial Advisory Board or BNP Media.