Ceramic Industry

INSIDE CI: Taking Chances

March 1, 2004
A discussion of the migration of U.S. manufacturing to lower-cost regions

There has been a great deal of discussion lately about the migration of U.S. manufacturing to lower-cost regions. The ceramic industry is no exception-though I am always saddened to learn of yet another plant closing or another company deciding to outsource its labor, it no longer surprises me to have to report on such events.

That's why I was so excited to be able to cover a new U.S. manufacturing plant in this issue (see http://www.ceramicindustry.com/CDA/ArticleInformation/coverstory/BNPCoverStoryItem/0,2708,120074,00.html). Steuben Tile could have chosen any region in the world to build its new plant. Given the current economic climate, many other companies might have decided to build in Mexico, or possibly in Asia, to take advantage of low labor costs and a lack of environmental regulations. But Steuben Tile elected to build its new plant in Hornell, N.Y.-not to be courageous or to take a stand for U.S. manufacturing, but simply because the company believes that is the best possible location to optimize its potential.

The company has identified a niche market, developed a unique product, selected high-quality materials and processes, installed state-of-the-art manufacturing equipment, and established solid partnerships with local government officials and experienced ceramic professionals-all of which lay the foundation for success. Is the company guaranteed to succeed? Of course not. But by taking a calculated risk and investing in partnerships and new technology, Steuben Tile has placed itself in a good position to capitalize on the significant potential of the U.S. tile market-and compete on a global scale.

Of course Steuben Tile isn't the only company making such investments. But too often in today's ceramic industry, plants are unwilling to make changes and take the risks that are necessary to give them a competitive edge in an increasingly global market.

There is no doubt that changes in international trade laws are needed to level the playing field. But if we're not constantly evaluating new ideas and technologies-such as the integrated casting machines (see http://www.ceramicindustry.com/CDA/ArticleInformation/features/BNP__Features__Item/0,2710,120115,00.html), robotic glazing systems (see http://www.ceramicindustry.com/CDA/ArticleInformation/features/BNP__Features__Item/0,2710,120271,00.html), and the DanteceramicTM Process (see http://www.ceramicindustry.com/CDA/ArticleInformation/features/BNP__Features__Item/0,2710,120272,00.html) also covered in this issue-we're likely to get left behind no matter how fair the rules become. And while such technologies aren't right for every plant, they just might make it possible to compete in today's challenging markets by reducing labor costs, increasing quality and production efficiency, and maximizing design flexibility.

I recently read that in Chinese, the written expression for "crisis" is composed of the characters for two other words: danger and opportunity. The U.S. ceramic industry is facing a very real danger from low-cost imports and unbalanced trade practices, but we also have an opportunity to embrace innovation and efficient manufacturing technologies. We owe it to ourselves to take that chance.

P.S. If your company has recently invested in a new plant or new manufacturing technologies, we'd love to hear about it. Please contact me at (248) 366-2503 or grahlk@bnpmedia.com .

What Do You Think?

If you have an opinion about this column or any other article published in Ceramic Industry (either in print or online), I encourage you to share your thoughts with other readers through our online bulletin board at http://www.i-boards.com/bnp/ci/.