Championing the UK Ceramic Industry
The British Ceramic Confederation supports UK ceramic manufacturers with a variety of programs and initiatives.
The United Kingdom is steeped in the tradition of ceramic manufacturing. For centuries, some of the finest whitewares products in the world have been (and continue to be) produced there, and the industry has diversified as advanced technologies bring technical ceramics to an ever-growing range of today’s modern applications.
As the industry has evolved, so too has the British Ceramic Confederation (BCC). Founded in 1984 in a merger of several trade organizations (the National Federation of Clay Industries, NFCI; the Refractories Association of Great Britain, RAGB; and the British Ceramic Manufacturers Federation, BCMF), the association’s members are ceramic manufacturers that have operations in the UK. While speaking recently with Laura Cohen, Ph.D., chief executive of the BCC, it quickly became clear that the confederation is actively engaged in identifying the various needs of the entire range of ceramic manufacturers, and working to support them.
“The goal of the BCC is about representing the industry,” she says. “We tend to work on issues that cut across more than one sector, such as health and safety improvements or energy and emissions regulations.”
The BCC also runs or supports separate trade associations that focus on more product-specific issues. For example, the BCC works on food contact legislation on behalf of the British Ceramic Gift and Tableware Manufacturers Association (BCGTMA).
The UK ceramic industry must adhere to both UK and European regulations. “Politically, we have to be neutral and work with all elected representatives,” says Cohen. “We have to be able to work with politicians of very different views, both in the UK and in the European Parliament. Quite a lot of our work involves showing politicians and regulators around manufacturing plants so they understand some of the issues.”
The main regulatory issues, according to Cohen, typically involve health and safety, energy and emissions, minerals and clay extraction, and also water sustainability. BCC staff members actively communicate with legislators and other organizations, such as Cerame-Unie, the European Ceramic Industry Association, to help produce legislation that meets regulators’ goals without causing undue challenges for industry.
“You can have good regulation,” insists Cohen. “An example is the Health and Safety at Work Act in the UK, which was about improving worker safety. We try and work to ensure that the regulation is actually addressing a real issue, that it is necessary and that it allows industry to continue to compete internationally.”
Environmental regulations can often be seen as anti-business, but, if handled properly, they need not be. “In the energy and environment area, particularly in areas like climate change, we have some very challenging European emissions reduction targets, as well as those in the UK that go over and beyond that,” explains Cohen. “That adds to companies’ cost base considerably. We have to work with regulators and other stakeholders to try and get pragmatic solutions, because global warming is a world problem. If we get the legislation wrong, we just end up displacing industry from the UK and Europe into parts of the world that are less regulated, and global emissions go up. Good regulation will allow environmentally responsible production to stay in Europe and the UK.”
When possible, the BCC attempts to suggest alternative legislation that meets the government’s or the regulators’ aims. For example, if passed, one European proposal in 2013 would have stopped nearly every tableware manufacturer in the world from selling into Europe. The BCC worked to understand what the European regulator wanted to achieve and collaborated with them to provide scientific evidence to determine whether the concerns were real, as well as what tests were necessary and appropriate for manufacturers to carry out. The confederation helped propose different ways of achieving the result that the regulator wanted, but in a way that was possible for the manufacturers to do.
“We took the lead with influencing Cerame-Unie and the European Commission, pulling together a very strong UK-based team to say this is what we need to do as manufacturing industry, and persuading the rest of the European manufacturers that this was a sensible approach,” explains Cohen. “It’s time to lead the discussion and help the regulators achieve a sensible result that, in this case, assured safety while using appropriate tests.”
The BCC strives to reach consensus not only among ceramic manufacturers and regulators, but the employees as well. “If there are policy issues that affect businesses and jobs, we’ll quite often sit down with the trades unions and see if we can reach a collective position,” says Cohen. “It’s actually quite powerful if you go to government together and say that employers and employees feel the following policy change would help ensure a stronger future for businesses, jobs, and investment in the UK.”
Beyond the vast labyrinth of legislation, the BCC also works to protect the UK ceramic industry in terms of trade issues. “Free trade agreements can be extremely useful for the ceramic industry,” says Cohen. “For example, the South Korean market has grown very rapidly for tableware manufacturers since that agreement came in place. South Korea is now our second-largest export market, after the U.S. If you think back five years ago, we’d have just never predicted that. It shows the value, the benefits that can be there when a free trade agreement works well.
“That’s why we’re quite keen to articulate the potential benefits of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) between the EU and the U.S. that’s being negotiated at the moment. If we get T-TIP right, it could be great for manufacturers in the U.S. and Europe.”
To help its members understand and capitalize on these issues, the confederation publishes a newsletter that identifies potential export and product development opportunities. The newsletter lists projects that are seeking collaboration in product development, available government/European grants and other funding for specific projects, export opportunities, and contracts that might be available in other countries.
Cohen enthusiastically talks about the confederation’s focus on sharing positive messages regarding ceramic manufacturing. “It’s about promoting the industry as well,” she says. “For example, one area that I’ve been really keen to work on in the last few years involves technology and innovation. We’ve built up closer links with the academics working on ceramics in the UK. We have an annual conference, and we encourage our members to present papers at the conference and to network with each other. We’re also doing more work on skills and reaching out to young people as well.”
Along with Lucideon, the BCC recently held a seminar entitled Reduce-Replace-Recycle: Effective Material Resource Management in Ceramics. During the event, academics and manufacturers came together to look at ways to reduce natural resource consumption in ceramic manufacturing. A similar seminar last year discussed ceramic defects.
“The seminar was a win-win situation,” says Cohen. “It enabled the industry to continue to grow its understanding of structure-property relationships by meeting academics with ceramics expertise, while academics benefited from exposure to contemporary ceramic industry issues.”
The confederation also works on behalf of individual manufacturers when needed. For example, the BCC helped facilitate a refractories company’s ability to upgrade its processes with special financing through the Carbon Trust. “What they were trying to do was to install some really quite cutting-edge heat exchanger technology to recover heat from refractory kilns and feed it back,” Cohen explains. “It was interesting because they had batch kilns rather than tunnel kilns, so it was different from the standard technology in the industry.”
Though all due diligence had been completed and the loan was on track, the timing could not have been worse. It was shortly after the worldwide financial crisis, and the UK government rapidly cut back all of its programs in this area. “Through our contacts with the Carbon Trust, because we work constructively with them, I was able to see what could be done,” says Cohen. “We were able to expedite that loan, and they wouldn’t have been able to do that themselves.”
Visit www.ceramicindustry.com/videos to watch a video detailing some of the BCC's efforts!