Ceramic Industry

New Kiln Provides Growth Opportunities

July 3, 2003
A new tunnel kiln is helping Gainey Ceramics increase production efficiencies while providing the extra capacity needed to grow its new tile line.

Over its 54-year history, Gainey Ceramics has seen its share of manufacturing challenges and economic downturns. Founded by John Gainey Sr. and John Gainey Jr. in 1949, the company began as a small job shop producing ceramic crockery and pet feeders in Inglewood, Calif., just outside of Los Angeles. It eventually began marketing its own line of ceramic planters, and these products helped the company steadily increase its market share throughout the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.

When strict environmental regulations and an economic recession forced many other California manufacturers to close or relocate their plants in the early ’90s, Gainey Ceramics took a different approach. Under the direction of John Jr.’s son, Steve Gainey, the company decided to reinvent itself by introducing a range of new products and changing the way it sold its products to its customers. Rather than working solely through distributors, the company began offering its customers the option of purchasing products directly from the plant (albeit at a slightly higher price to protect its distributors’ margins). It also worked closely with its customers to develop products designed specifically to meet their needs. As a result of these efforts, the company continued to thrive.

“We realized our most valuable asset was not found on the balance sheet, but instead was our 50-year history and the quality, innovation and value that my family has always put behind the Gainey Ceramics name,” Steve explained.

Over the past several years, Gainey Ceramics has continued to build on that reputation. In 1997, the company began manufacturing private-label, high-end ceramic tile for companies such as Walker Zanger, Ann Sacks and LATCO. Then, in February 2003, the company introduced its own line of high-end ceramic tile. To ensure the success of this new product in today’s difficult manufacturing environment, Steve decided to make yet another drastic change—this time investing in a new, fully automated, 120-ft-long, gas-fired, ceramic fiber-insulated tunnel kiln.

“When we first started getting into the tile business, we basically took old pottery equipment and adjusted it to make tile. We had never really taken the necessary steps to be a tile manufacturer. But we knew there was—and still is—a lot of growth potential in our niche tile market and that we had to start planning for future production,” said Steve. “This kiln was our first big step in that direction.”

Gainey introduced its new "Four Seasons" tile line in February 2003.

Laying the Groundwork for Success

According to Steve, the planning stages for the new kiln began about three years ago. At the time, the company was using 10 fiber-lined envelope kilns to fire its products, but these weren’t very efficient for manufacturing tile. “We wanted to reduce our energy costs and firing losses, and also reduce some of our labor costs associated with loading and unloading our kilns. We also wanted to improve control of our colors and color consistency. And of course any kiln we purchased had to meet California’s strict environmental regulations,” Steve said.

After looking at a number of different kiln suppliers, the company finally settled on Keith Co., Inc., of Pico Rivera, Calif. “Keith put together a good package and has built these types of tunnel kilns before, and we really liked the fact that the company was right in our own neighborhood,” Steve explained.

Although most of today’s large tile manufacturers use roller hearth kilns, Gainey Ceramics decided not to go that route. “We’re going after a smaller niche market of higher-end tile. The relief on some of our deco pieces is much heavier than what the large manufacturers make, and some of our trim pieces are also much bigger. We experimented with a roller hearth design but decided that a tunnel kiln was the way to go,” Steve said.

To ensure that the kiln would provide enough capacity for future growth, Gainey decided to have the kiln built slightly larger than it needed for its current tile production. However, this meant that the kiln would need to simultaneously fire both ceramic planters and tile to avoid wasting the excess capacity in the interim. Keith designed a system that includes two return tracks, one on each side of the kiln. Five hundred pounds of pottery are loaded onto cars on one side of the kiln, and 1275 pounds of tile are loaded onto cars on the opposite side. The kiln’s control system automatically selects loaded cars from each track and transfers them into the kiln. At the conclusion of a firing cycle, all cars are automatically transferred to their return track of origin. The kiln’s design reduces labor costs and also helps ensure energy efficiency.

Waste heat from the tunnel kiln is used to heat a large dryer, resulting in additional energy savings. Control of the dryer is managed through the tunnel kiln’s PC/PLC control system, which also enables Keith to access real-time operating data for maintenance and troubleshooting purposes.

The exit end return of the new kiln.

Realizing the Payback

The new tunnel kiln was commissioned in the second quarter of 2002 and replaced four of the company’s envelope kilns. After almost one year of operation, Gainey Ceramics is seeing significant benefits. Because of the kiln’s energy-efficient design, fuel consumption has been reduced by about 60 percent per pound of fired ware. Additionally, labor costs have been reduced by 25 to 30 percent as a result of the improved material flow to and from the kiln, and firing losses have been reduced by more than 15 percent due to the kiln’s control accuracy. The kiln’s accuracy and temperature uniformity (to within ±10 degrees F) are also providing Gainey with better control over its glaze colors and consistency.

According to Steve, the decision to invest in the new kiln was easy, despite the current economic climate. “The new kiln makes us more competitive and also gives us the ability to better control our product quality. Additionally, the fuel savings and efficiencies that we’ve gained have put us right at break-even, with about a three-year payback. It was actually really hard to justify not making the investment, especially since we anticipate continued growth in our tile lines,” he said.

The company plans to keep some of its envelope kilns for firing its large, heavy ceramic planters, but Steve is eager to replace more of them with another tunnel kiln should the opportunity arise. “I knew ahead of time that we would be able to shut down four of the periodic kilns, but now that I’m seeing the benefits of the tunnel kiln, I actually wish we would have made it a little bigger. I would have liked to shut down a couple more of the periodics. As our new tile line grows, we will replace more of those kilns with this same type of tunnel kiln,” he said.

In addition to Gainey’s debut tile line, called “Four Seasons,” the company is working on another new line that will be introduced within the next several months. Steve is optimistic about the potential for these new products. “Now that we’re unshackled to go do our own sales and marketing with our own tile line, I’m anticipating at least a 20 percent growth rate per year. I’m confident that our new kiln will give us the capacity and quality we need to meet our goals,” he said.

For more information:

For more information about Gainey Ceramics, contact the company at 1200 Arrow Hwy., La Verne, CA 91750-5217; (800) 451-8155 or (909) 593-3533; fax (909) 596-9337; e-mail steve@gaineyceramics.com; or visit http://www.gaineyceramics.com.

For more information about Keith Co., Inc., contact the company at 8323 Loch Lomond Dr., Pico Rivera, CA 90660; (562) 948-3636; fax (562) 949-3696; e-mail info@keithcompany.com; or visit http://www.keithcompany.com.