Ceramic Industry

Kiln Connection: Energy:Take 2

December 1, 2001
The extra-high natural gas prices of the spring have subsided a bit. Most of my clients report that they are now paying only double last year’s rates. The slowdown in the economy has alleviated extra-high gas prices for the moment, but the question is, what happens next? You can’t control the markets, but you can take some energy steps right now.

Table 1.

Making Improvements

Several of my clients have done a lot of work in the past year to improve efficiencies, and as a result, they are more competitive today, despite the flat economy. Installation of recuperation systems has been popular, and equipment upgrades have been a prime consideration for many ceramic concerns. But for each manufacturer that has put effort into energy reduction, I still continue to see many others that seem to be in the throes of analysis paralysis.

For example, several U.S.-based manufacturers produce high quality products, and their businesses have remained strong despite our faltering economy. But many of them are still using a number of old muffle kilns, and the energy waste—and costs—are astounding. While a retrofit/modification might save some fuel, it is frequently not an ideal solution, because the kiln geometry and awkward loading and unloading cannot be significantly improved. The best solution is usually the installation of a new kiln.

Just consider the numbers shown in Table 1.

Figure 1. Capital cost versus annual savings of an equipment upgrade. Annual savings includes yield improvements as well as reductions in fuel, maintenance and labor.
The $700,000+ in energy savings per year is only one part of the expense reduction associated with new equipment. Reductions in maintenance for the older kilns and lower kiln furniture consumption, combined with yield improvements, will account for another $375,000 savings per year. Last, but not least, labor savings associated with a better layout and improved product loading will save another $100,000 per year.

The cost of the new kiln will be around $1,250,000, with another $140,000 in costs associated with plant preparations. So, in essence, the new system cost will be $1,390,000—but annual savings will add up to $1,231,000 (see Figure 1).

In addition, muffle kilns are large-scale polluters, putting out significantly more greenhouse gases and several times the volume and concentration of NOx compared to a new kiln.

So Why Wait?

With interest rates at an all time low, what is the rationale to continue with such an outmoded system? Imagine if fuel prices were to double. Under these circumstances, the new kiln would pay for itself in well under a year.

Here’s the really strange part: In many circumstances, plant management is perfectly aware of the economics of this investment. The unwillingness of the companies to invest in the obvious reduces the morale of their entire facility, and these manufacturers will find themselves unprofitable and likely out of business before another decade passes.

Ceramics is an energy-intensive product. In many operations, energy accounts for more than 10% of the variable cost of the product. Don’t consider your energy costs to be fixed; you can make improvements through adjustment, modification and replacement that will better position your company in the competitive arena.