Ceramic Industry

Kiln Connection: Apathy Alert

September 1, 2001
Here’s a little different kind of column this month. Please bear with me as I try to explain some concerns that were precipitated by a number of isolated but related events over the past year.

ceramitec Excitement

Last October, many of us attended the ceramitec Exhibition in Munich. What a show! Engineers from all over the world congregated to look at the latest inventions, equipment and processes. For three days I walked through the exhibition halls, and I didn’t even come close to seeing everything I wanted to see. It was exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. Companies from all over the world, large and small, proudly demonstrated their products, held technical discussions in their booths and even closed deals for equipment sales.

And not only were the technical ceramic industries thriving—traditional ceramics also seemed to be alive and well, even in the high labor cost areas in the UK and throughout Europe. Innovative products, spectacular automation systems—these were the norm. I was proud to be there and felt like a part of a vigorous and energetic industry. Interestingly, I met more of my American colleagues at the ceramitec meeting than any other stateside meeting.

Lackluster ACerS Attendance

Fast forward half a year to the ACerS meeting in Indianapolis and the scene was markedly different. Ho hum. Where were the thousands of engineers eager to find out new ways of manufacturing ceramics? Why were only half as many attendees present compared to the ACerS of 15 years ago? Where were all of the machinery inventors and manufacturers? In the kiln area, several companies chose not to exhibit. For sure, Indianapolis is not quite as exciting as Munich, but that can’t be the whole story.

Industry-Wide Communication

During the Ceramic Industry advisory board meeting at that same ACerS gathering, I expressed my concern that most of the people who write to me asking questions and advice are from outside the U.S. I get e-mail from all over the world requesting assistance and clarification regarding kiln topics, but the contact from plant people in the U.S. is scarce. Is it because we Americans have all of the answers? Are our manufacturing operations and kiln systems in such great condition that all of the problems are solved? Not too likely, since our manufacturing operations seem to be moving offshore at an alarming rate. Indeed, a lot of my work over the past six months has been to move equipment from three separate facilities here in the U.S. to other countries. And many of the plants that I provide assistance to here in the states seem to be in pretty rough shape. Not only that, but for the most part, the plant operatives in these plants often have limited technical training.

On the other hand, I work with a number of companies in the U.S. in traditional ceramics who never stop learning about and improving their processes. When I visit them, they always ask the hardest questions and seem to have active initiatives in yield improvement, variation reduction, energy conservation and sound maintenance efforts. It probably isn’t any coincidence that they are planning well ahead of the current situation. One client even has a 50-year plan in place! And they all seem to be making plenty of money.

Your Feedback

So what’s the point of this diatribe? Well, clearly I’m concerned about the state of traditional ceramic manufacturing here in the U.S. Our service society would not—and could not—exist without the creation of wealth that only happens when a product is made from raw materials. This is a concern that seems to be echoed by my engineering friends whenever we get together.

Does anybody out there have similar concerns? Does anybody out there have any ideas or thoughts on this topic? I would love to hear from you. Some of your comments and ideas will be published in an upcoming column.