Ceramic Industry

INSIDE CI: Operation Innovation

May 1, 2006

Recently, an ill-fated DIY home improvement project brought the importance of innovation to the forefront of my mind. Little did I know that if you ask four contractors how to repair nearly 100-year-old plaster walls, you will get six different answers. I'd naively thought that each of the companies I'd contacted for a quote would go about solving my problem the same way, and that I would hire one based almost entirely on price.

I was in for a big surprise. Each of the contractors who came to look at my kitchen had very different, sometimes very innovative, ideas of what would work best. One said I should replace the plaster altogether. Another suggested laying drywall over the existing plaster, while yet another said a combination approach would get the job done. I had a lot of decisions to make.

To the consumer, porcelain tile probably seems like a very straightforward product. Different shapes, sizes and colors are available, certainly, but how those effects are achieved isn't relevant as long as the tile looks great. Manufacturers know differently, of course. Especially in terms of pressing and decorating processes, tile manufacturing has experienced significant innovations over the last several decades. The most recent breakthrough involves continuous powder precompaction, which enables manufacturers to achieve natural, full-body effects in an efficient and dynamic process (see "Dynamic Processes").

Similarly, most consumers don't care how their cell phone or other electronic devices work-just that they do. For manufacturers, however, increasing quality and driving down cost are key objectives. Researchers are discovering that ceramic components used in electronics and a variety of other industries can be made through low-pressure injection molding, which is less expensive and requires less energy than its high-pressure counterpart (see "Advancing Components with Low-Pressure Injection Molding").

Kiln tracking methods have come a long way as well. Gone are the days of trailing thermocouples (thank goodness!). As one sanitaryware manufacturer has discovered, today's kiln profiling systems offer a variety of tools to assist in QC/QA processes (see "Case Study: A Quality Profile").

Manufacturers are also increasingly aware of the variety of techniques available to characterize ceramic dispersions. Zeta potential analyzers, used alone or in conjunction with particle size analysis, can determine the stability of a dispersion and help ensure that the end product meets its required specifications (see "Characterizing Stability").

And in the brick industry, an upgraded waste heat system is helping one manufacturer reduce its fuel consumption, while radio frequency identification is offering a variety of opportunities for improved product tracking. (See this month's Brick & Clay Record articles.)

Certainly price is a factor, but choosing the right supplier often requires consideration not only of the desired end result (in my case, a freshly painted kitchen), but of the processes used to get there. As I write this column, the contractor I finally hired is scheduled to begin work tomorrow. I hope he performs half as well as the innovators we've featured in this issue. c