Centennial Celebration: Harrop Industries Reaches 100-Year Anniversary
While firing technologies and customer needs have certainly evolved since 1919, Carl Harrop's innate curiosity and commitment to customer service continue today.
Hop in a time machine with me; let’s go back to 1919. Woodrow Wilson is president of the U.S., gas is $.25/gal, and a first-class stamp will cost you $.03. Prohibition in the form of the 18th Amendment has been authorized, dial telephones are being introduced, and the pop-up toaster is in its infancy.
Some of these milestones have naturally changed with the times, though one has been overturned (cheers to that!). Few people actually pick up the phone to call someone anymore (and I can’t imagine that anyone dials the numbers when they do), but Edison (and whoever dreamed up those dials) would be positively astounded by what we can accomplish with a phone nowadays. And I don’t know what I’d do without those reliable slices of toast every morning—thanks, Charles Strite! Whether their names are remembered or not, the efforts of early technological pioneers have had lasting effects on our everyday lives.
One name that is sure to stand the test of time—particularly in the ceramic industry—is Harrop. After having toured Europe following World War I on behalf of the U.S. Bureau of Mines to study energy-efficient manufacturing processes, Carl Harrop attained two tunnel kiln patents and started up a one-man consulting business in 1919. While firing technologies and customer needs have certainly evolved over the last 100 years, Carl’s innate curiosity and commitment to customer service continue today.
While he was in Europe following WWI, Carl had witnessed first-hand the benefits that continuous-fired tunnel kilns provided for ceramic manufacturing, in comparison to the traditional batch and periodic kilns that dominated the industry at the time in the U.S. He obtained his patents (one in 1918 and the second in 1919) and, with the creation of Carl B. Harrop Engineers, began designing and overseeing the construction of tunnel kilns for ceramic manufacturers. Industry feedback was, to say the least, quite positive.
“The market for tunnel kilns over here just exploded,” says Jim Houseman, Ph.D., CEO of Harrop Industries, Inc. “They were able to successfully fire all types of ceramics in tunnel kilns, with much lower energy and labor costs, and the quality of the ware was better and more consistent. The economic success and profitability of going this route as a processing method really took off in this country.”
The 1920s and 30s represented a period of incredible growth in terms of the conversion from periodic to continuous firing of ceramics in the U.S. By 1926 alone, Harrop had produced 50 tunnel kilns; that number grew to over 90 by 1931. Of those first 50 kilns, most were for the production of electrical porcelain, dinnerware and brick; other end products included refractories, sanitaryware, pottery, and tile.
The consulting business had clearly grown significantly. As a result, in 1927, Carl incorporated to create Harrop Ceramic Service Co. He served as president until his death in 1934. His successor, George D. Brush, would lead the company through the next 40 years of growth.
Changing Industry Needs
As our society has changed over the years, so too has the ceramic industry—and the suppliers that support it. For example, the U.S. brick industry expanded drastically after the end of World War II (all those baby boomers needed places to live!), and brick manufacturers surpassed dinnerware and technical ceramics as Harrop’s primary customer base. In the late 1950s, the company adjusted again to address the ceramic industry’s exploration of more advanced materials.
“During this time period, the ceramic industry started to branch into more sophisticated materials, especially technical, electrical and electronic ceramics (e.g., ferrites, alumina substrates, wear-resistant materials),” explains Dan O’Brien, vice president. “The production capacity of kilns dramatically changed. Instead of tons-per-day production, the kilns for these materials were producing hundreds of pounds per day.”
Advanced ceramics often require specialized firing cycles or atmospheres that are simply not feasible in a large tunnel kiln. To meet these needs, Harrop began to develop much smaller periodic and continuous kilns with smaller cross sections. The types of kilns became more varied as well, including box, shuttle, elevator and pusher plate, to name a few.
The 1960s saw Harrop focus heavily on prefabricated kilns, adding a new facility in 1966 and then doubling its size in 1968 in response to increasing market demand. “The one common denominator with the kilns to fire these new materials was the kiln size,” explains O’Brien. “Kilns could be designed and fabricated hundreds of miles from the production site, shipped to the site, and quickly installed.”
Following Brush’s retirement in 1978, Houseman became president; he would serve in that role for the next 35 years. In 1981, reflecting its increasingly diverse products and services, the company changed its name to Harrop Industries, Inc. It continued to grow and evolve over the next several decades, launching innovative products such as a microwave-assist kiln in 2007. Steve Houseman was named president in 2013.
Harrop currently produces custom-built kilns of nearly every type (including our old friend the tunnel kiln, though lengths can go over 500 ft these days). Today’s kilns feature components such as sophisticated refractory linings, thermal oxidizers, complex exhaust systems, precise temperature control and data acquisition systems that Carl could not have imagined 100 years ago. The company also offers tape casting products and services (via its 1996 acquisition of A.J. Carsten Co.), thermocouples, toll firing and testing services, and other technical and consulting services.
Continued Customer Focus
One theme runs uninterrupted throughout Harrop’s history: dedication to customer service. “When Carl incorporated, he called the company Harrop Ceramic Service Company, not Harrop Kilns and Dryers,” explains Jim Houseman. “That was his whole philosophy. He instilled it in all of his employees, and it’s been passed down from generation to generation.”
Customer expectations have changed, however, and Harrop today works in partnership with its customers more than ever before. “Maybe 15-20 years ago, we would just get an RFQ to quote on a kiln, the customer knew what they wanted, and we would quote on it,” says Steve Houseman. “Today, that’s not the case. Customers aren’t really sure exactly what kind of kiln they need. Firing processes today are a lot more sophisticated, and a lot of the engineers running these kilns are less experienced. They need help in developing their process.”
Harrop provides assistance by test firing materials to identify the best temperatures, firing cycles and atmospheres for the specific application. “Once we’re successful with that, we talk with them about how much production they need, and then that evolves into what kind of kiln they need,” Steve explains.
This type of interaction is typical in today’s ceramic manufacturing environment, as the older generation of ceramic engineers retires and qualified replacements can be scarce. Suppliers with long histories in the industry can be an invaluable resource as ceramic manufacturers, in Steve’s words, “replace experienced people with good, inexperienced people who can learn.”
O’Brien agrees. “Harrop has developed a vast knowledge base that assists in selecting the correct solutions for different products,” he says. “The customer has a ceramic widget that they can make in a lab, but they don’t know how to make it in commercial quantities. Thinking outside the box is critical in arriving at the final solution. Harrop is moving forward knowing that yesterday’s solution is not necessarily the answer in the future.”
Positioned for Success
The world has changed tremendously in the past century. While we have no way of knowing what the next 100 years might have in store, Harrop can certainly take comfort in the successes of the past while continuing to evolve in the pursuit of customer support.
“The future is bright,” says Steve. “Though the brick industry is still pretty much depressed, we’re trying to position ourselves to react when it comes back. As for the rest of the ceramic field, it’s growing and doing very well. With our approach to being a custom kiln designer and builder, we’re positioning ourselves to continue to support the industry for many years to come.”
For additional information, visit https://harropusa.com.