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Q&A ClayTech UK

Clay Technology magazine
15 Dec 2014

Rhiannon Garth Jones talks to three delegates at ClayTech UK 2014 about the future of the heavy clay industry. 

What do you see as the most important challenge facing the heavy clay industry in the next 10 years?

I think the cost of energy is what is going to matter most. Around 25–30% of our costs are fuel, so those are a huge concern for us. Even though oil prices have fallen recently, the current political uncertainty around Russia and the Far East, means fuel prices could go through the roof in the near future. I think everyone is worrying about that

I think workplace dust exposure is something to be concerned about. 

If the limits on it become as draconian as it looks like they might, and are vigorously enforced by the Health and Safety Executive, brick factories could really struggle to fully comply. It’s a fundamental issue. Respirable crystalline silica (RCS) is, to me, the elephant in the room – everyone knows about it, but we’ve all been hoping it won’t be a problem. But, if the European Commission decides to control RCS under the Carcinogens Directive, every brick factory is going to have a skull and crossbones on its door, and that is something we are going to have to seriously consider how to deal with.

In North America, it’s going to be revenue generation. It appears that many believe it’s impossible to improve or expand the market. There is some evidence that the Brick Institute of America (BIA) has largely ceased to promote brick sales. It had a large advertising and promotional function, but now it seems to focus on providing communications, which suggests to me that BIA has lot faith in its own efforts, leaving marketing to individual companies. Many brick companies are selling other products now – concrete bricks or synthetic stone.

How can the industry best face these challenges?

I think ESOS (see article in this issue) is going to be brilliant, particularly with the concern about the cost of energy. It’s a cultural change that needs to happen – that shift to thinking about how and why we use energy. I think it’s the obvious next step.

Another big issue, with emerging possible solutions, is the energy used in firing and the need for new, low energy and low-carbon technologies in firing bricks. Of course, achieving that is going to cost a lot of money and we don’t know where the funding will come from. Synthetic gas could be the answer, but it’s going to need millions of euros in research funding.

I think serious thought must be given to the percentage of revenue that a brick company gets from a square metre of wall. The portion that the brick producer gets now is about 20%, the mason-contractor gets about 20%, and the architect and builder the remaining 60%. It’s clear to me that the largest opportunity is to take charge of one of those additional functions. The most likely is for brick companies to absorb mason-contractor firms, and potentially double their revenue from the wall. 

Many other industries have gone from supplying a component to supplying a system. I have discussed this idea with colleagues from the UK, who think it might work here, too. The brick companies in the USA have already absorbed their distributors over the past 5–10 years, and, for me, the obvious next move is for them to start installing their product.