In the late 1990s, Carolina Ceramics Brick Co. in Columbia, S.C., decided to expand. The company tore down one of its existing kilns to make room for a state-of-the-art, energy-efficient model capable of producing 40 million brick per year. The project, which was spearheaded by Ceric Inc., Golden, Colo., and went online in 2000, also included a new dryer, two setting robots and an automated car handling system.
In 2002, Carolina Ceramics decided to restart its remaining 6-ft-wide kiln to make some rustic tumbled brick for the residential market, bringing the plant's total production to 55 million brick per year--but that still wasn't enough to meet market demand. By 2003, the company realized that it needed to expand again.
Brick riding on a Carolina Ceramics kiln car.
In the late 1990s, Carolina Ceramics Brick Co. in Columbia, S.C., decided to expand. The plant, which originally made 30 million brick per year (primarily architectural face brick) using two 6-ft-wide kilns, had been operating at capacity for quite some time. Its equipment was outdated, and the company was certain that it would be able to sell more brick if it could just make more.
Ford Plantation in Richmond Hill, Ga., features brick from Carolina
Carolina Ceramics tore down one of its existing kilns to make room for a state-of-the-art, energy-efficient model capable of producing 40 million brick per year. The project, which was spearheaded by Ceric Inc., Golden, Colo., and went online in 2000, also included a new dryer, two setting robots and an automated car handling system. In 2002, Carolina Ceramics decided to restart its remaining 6-ft-wide kiln to make some rustic tumbled brick for the residential market, bringing the plant's total production to 55 million brick per year. While the company was optimistic about its prospects, it was unprepared for just how receptive the market would be to its new product.
"That was our first entry into a rustic residential line of brick, and we quickly sold out our capacity. By 2003, we realized we needed to expand again," explains Michael W. Borden, president and owner.
"Big John," the world's largest brick robot at the time it was installed, resides and works at Carolina Ceramics Brick Co.
Benefiting from Advanced Technologies
The company once more chose Ceric to handle its new $25 million plant, which would add another 40 million brick per year to Carolina Ceramics' capacity. "We got very comfortable with Ceric on the first plant they built for us in 2000, and since we wanted to share kiln cars and transfers between both plants, that was really the way we were hoping to go. We were very happy when Ceric gave us a competitive bid," says Borden.
Since cost was a concern, Carolina Ceramics handled as much of the project as possible in-house. Under the direction of plant manager and ceramic engineer Bob Bond, the company built its own 30,000-square-foot grinding room, which handles material for both plants using a primary grinder from Stedman, Aurora, Ind.; a secondary grinder from J.C. Steele, Statesville, N.C.; screens from Midwestern Industries, Massillon, Ohio; and a scale system the plant designed in conjunction with Superior Scale, Inc., Fort Mill, S.C. Ceric handled the slug cutter, setting area, car handling equipment, dryer and kilns, and then Carolina Ceramics installed its own monorail for packaging.
"Handling some aspects of the project ourselves allowed us to keep our costs down while still taking advantage of the new technologies Ceric brought to the table," says Borden.
Chief among these new technologies were systems designed to improve the work environment and reduce manufacturing costs. For example, an all-electronic slug cutter provides much quieter operation and reduced maintenance requirements compared to a conventional pneumatic system. "We wanted to build a mill room that was quiet and efficient, and this equipment contributes to that goal. You can hardly hear it running when you walk through the plant. As far as mill rooms go in the average brick plant, ours is probably about as quiet as they get," says Bond.
The plant also features one of the world's largest setting robots-the largest at the time the plant was built, although Borden admits a larger robot might now exist with all of the other new brick plants under construction. Regardless of its status in the industry, the machine is impressive. Designed by Fanuc, the single robot sets brick just as quickly as the two separate robots in Carolina Ceramics' other plant, allowing the company to save on space and maintenance in its new facility without compromising production levels. The robot also builds better hacks on each kiln car because it makes fewer trips to the car with more brick.
Other advanced technologies in the new plant include a new texturing device (designed by Ceric) that has allowed the company to automate the tumbled look of its rustic residential line while retaining its unique appearance; a state-of-the-art kiln (designed by Ceric) with a burner system that has improved uniformity; and a sophisticated car mapping system (also designed by Ceric) that has helped the company optimize the tracks and transfers that are shared between the two plants.
But perhaps the most noteworthy innovation is the dryer. Designed through a collaborative effort between Bond and Ceric, the dryer uses multiple small fans that constantly move back and forth along the length of the dryer, rather than a few large stationary fans. As a result, virtually all of the ductwork has been eliminated, and the amount of energy required to operate the dryer has been significantly reduced.
"This dryer saves more than half the energy compared to our other dryer. It's also very gentle-we occasionally get some cracking in our other dryer, but we've had absolutely no cracking in this dryer," says Bond.
Carolina Ceramics brick also adorns EdVenture Children's Museum, Columbia, S.C.
Building the new plant was not without challenges. Because sales were so strong, Carolina Ceramics had to keep its existing plant-including the old 6-ft-wide kiln-in operation as long as possible during the two years that the new plant was under construction. The company finally had to tear down its old kiln so that it could use that space for the new plant, but it continued to run the existing plant during the entire construction project. Fortunately, Ceric was able to deliver the project ahead of schedule.
"Getting the new plant up and running as quickly as possible was crucial because we needed to get product out, especially during the summer months when the building industry is so busy. Our new kiln came online a month ahead of schedule-giving us an extra three million brick in sales that we wouldn't have had otherwise," says Borden.
The plant's location on a relatively small 25-acre parcel of land in an urban area also posed a challenge. Besides the logistical issues of fitting a new plant on the existing site, the company also had to consider how the project would affect nearby residents. From the initial planning stages, Carolina Ceramics decided to go beyond current regulatory requirements and make every possible effort to be a "good neighbor" by installing high-tech scrubbers (supplied by Hellmich), keeping its mine permits up to date, and minimizing the amount of noise generated by the plant.
"We now have both an energy- and labor-efficient plant that generates less noise and fewer emissions while producing 80 million brick per year than our original plant generated in producing just 30 million brick. We've done a lot to improve the plant site so that we can be good neighbors," says Borden.
Looking for New Opportunities
The new plant came online in July 2005, and Carolina Ceramics immediately began reaping the payback. "We're always concerned when we make a big investment, but our experience with our first plant, as well as our sales outlook and market projections, gave us reason to believe we could be successful again," says Borden. "The whole plant is highly automated wherever possible. Because we've been adding capacity, we've never really eliminated people; however, we're now making more than twice the amount of brick we originally made with only 10% more people. We've been able to further control our manufacturing costs by sharing our maintenance employees, kiln employees, and even our yard personnel across both plants. We've also reduced our BTUs per lb from the old kiln to this one by almost 40%-a huge fuel savings, especially since we're running on natural gas. Additionally, we now have a substantial amount of flexibility in our product mix-we can make up to 80 million architectural brick or 80 million residential brick, depending on where the market goes and which side is stronger. This should allow us to keep our capacity utilization high, regardless of market fluctuations."
Flexible packaging capabilities enable Carolina Ceramics to blend different brick colors together in one order.
But that doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement. One area the company would still like to automate is its packaging operation. "We make a lot of different sizes, colors and textures, which makes it difficult for us to use an automatic packaging system. Additionally, we like the human touch of being able to blend brick together and take out bad brick or bad colors. But that's an area we'll continue to evaluate. We've been waiting for the industry to come up with a good automated system that we think we can apply to our plant. The minute we see one we like, I think we would go out and get it," says Borden.
Beyond that, the company is open to whatever new opportunities might be on the horizon. "Our goal this year is to sell out this new plant. But I think very quickly we'll turn our attention to another project. We're going to keep our eyes open to any kind of growth, whether that's in new plants or new products," says Borden.