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As in past years, CI recently took some time to chat with several raw materials suppliers about the latest challenges, trends and innovations affecting the ceramic industry. Here's what they had to say.
Q: How do the market conditions in the ceramic/brick/glass industry compare to previous years?Bill Davison, Manager - Ceramics, Construction, R&D, NYCO Minerals, Willsboro, N.Y.: One positive is the fact that other materials have increased in cost, giving the minerals industry the opportunity to raise prices. Also, Chinese competition is decreasing due to increased internal consumption and other factors.
Wes Jones, President , WesBond Corp., Wilmington, Del.: We estimate that the market is down about 5% to date from 2006, but that's still better than 2005.
Skip Klatt, Vice President - Sales, American Chemet Corp., Deerfield, Ill.: The ceramic trade has had an exodus offshore and, at the same time, an apparent reduction in demand. Since we are a worldwide player, we have seen demand shift from the U.S./Europe to the Far East. In the brick area, cost increases and the housing decline have had a negative impact. Interestingly, since we are involved in color, there has been a slight increase in demand as manufacturers seem to have expanded product offerings. In the glass area, art glass has been negatively impacted by energy costs and offshore competition, and the bottle industry seems to have been hit by the increased use of plastic and aluminum for beverages.
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges you currently face as a materials supplier to the ceramic/brick/glass industry?Davison: Our biggest challenge now is the downturn in the construction and automotive industries, which adds to the trend of ceramic industries moving out of the U.S.
Jones: Material shortages due to higher demand from oil and ethanol production are the biggest challenge we face right now.
Klatt: Dealing with energy transport and raw material costs in a world that is resisting price increases has been difficult.
Q: How do these challenges affect your ceramic/brick/glass customers (higher prices, longer lead times, etc.), and what steps is your company taking to try to minimize these effects?Davison: NYCO's main plan of action is to take back the European and Latin American wollastonite ceramic markets, where a dependable, quality supply is deemed more important than small price differentials. New supply issues with Chinese raw materials are driving this effect.
Jones: Higher prices and slower delivery have required better inventory control and order planning on our part. In terms of minimizing the ill effects of higher prices, longer lead times, etc., our cationic starch supplier just opened a new plant in Mississippi, so we're hoping that impacts us in a positive way.
Klatt: We have successfully shared and passed increases along on those expenses that are public in nature and thus out of our control, such as energy. Many of our raw material expenses that are public, such as the cost of metal, have been passed on, but underlying raw material cost increases have been absorbed for the most part.
Q: What new materials or services has your company introduced within the past few years for the ceramic/brick/glass market, and what other developments should ceramic/brick/glass manufacturers look for in the near future?Davison: NYCO has introduced a non-toxic mineral fiber- reinforcing grade that results in a number of manufacturing yield and cost efficiencies in sanitaryware and other whitewares industries. NYCO will also make available a sintering aid for the accelerated densification of advanced ceramics.
Jones: We provide master blends of complete refractory binder systems for easier and more uniform processing. We also offer a new, safer binder to replace phenolic resins for foundry use.
Q: What steps can/should ceramic/brick/glass manufacturers take to help ensure a consistent, reliable, cost-effective supply of materials in the future?Davison: Long-term contracts are the one method by which suppliers can operate most effectively. Also, planning capital spending and mining and processing campaigns seems to result in the best economics for all. It also helps to constantly search for new markets and modification of material grades.
Jones: My advice to manufacturers would be to sign formal contracts for materials, give adequate lead time on orders, and improve your own energy efficiency.
Editor's note: The suppliers included in this article are not intended to be representative of all ceramic industry suppliers. These companies answered our survey or agreed to be interviewed for the purposes of this article. Contact information is available online at www.ceramicindustry.com/databook.