The Porto Ferreira ceramics complex, in the interior of the State of São Paulo, is investing in technological innovation to ensure the survival of its 108 companies. In recent years, poor raw material quality, high production costs, and the not very innovative design, have hampered local industrial performance, leading hundreds of companies into bankruptcy. The complex currently produces a monthly average of 3 million items, grosses R$50 million a year and has 4,000 direct employees – 45% of local manufacturing labor force.
The companies are betting on the expansion of business and, with the support of the Interdisciplinary Electrochemical and Ceramics Laboratory (Liec), of the São Carlos Federal University (UFSCar), they are modernizing processes to achieve an international quality standard for the products. “Porto Ferreira is the largest artistic ceramics center in the country. If there is no technological change, the center will gradually disappear”, explains Elson Longo, research coordinator at Liec, which is a member of the Multidisciplinary Center for the Development of Ceramics Materials, one of the ten Research, Innovation and Diffusion Centers (Cepids) sponsored by FAPESP.
The project to recover the center is the result of a technical partnership between the Chinaware, Stone Powder, and Clay Ceramics Products Association of Porto Ferreira (Sindicer) and Liec, agreed on at the end of 1999, with three essential objectives: “Nowadays, the key words are price and competitiveness”, says Longo. The first step was to renovate the Sindicer laboratory, set up in a building belonging to the Porto Ferreira city hall, equipping it with infrastructure, financed by FAPESP, in order to undertake applied research. The changes began by replacing the raw material. Most companies used to employ São Simão clay, a lode considered fabulous 90 years ago, but now long since exhausted. “Nowadays it’s just the leftovers”, comments Longo.
With high water absorption, the ceramic items were fragile, as well as being costly to produce: companies paid R$270 a ton, when the price charged by suppliers in Paraná and Minas Gerais was no higher than R$45. Before prospecting for new markets, the laboratory established specifications and quality standards for the raw material, ranging from the appropriate amount of clay to the tonality of the ceramics pigments. More than this: using cutting-edge technology, a sort of database of colors such as white and beige was set up, to give uniformity to the ceramic sets and product batches. “When a company places an order, it describes the features of the material and thus it becomes possible to check, through simple characteristics, whether it is in fact buying what it ordered”, explains Longo.
In order to improve quality still further and lower the raw material freight cost, Liec,the association and the Porto Ferreira city hall, together with a group of specialists from the Spanish Ceramics and Glassware Society, of the Inorganic Chemistry Department of the Jaime I University in Spain, and the Tierra Atomizada company, also in Spain, assessed the feasibility of establishing a company to produce ceramics clay in the town.
The second purpose of the project is to convert the electric ovens, in which the ceramic pieces are cooked, into gas fueled, in at least 30 companies in the complex. “Gas burns at a higher controlled temperature, which is more appropriate for ceramic pieces,” says the Liec coordinator. It also lowers the amount of water absorbed from 28% to between 14% and 15%, which is compatible with international quality standards, an essential criteria to enable manufacturers to compete in the overseas market.
Twenty-two companies have already adapted their ovens to use the new fuel and, in most cases, the exchange has meant a saving of at least 30% on the cost of power. “Consumption of 66,000 kW a month has fallen to 2,000 kW a month”, says Ademir Varaldo, president of Pirâmide Cerâmica Artística Ltda.
Since the federal government took rationing measures, imposing cuts on consumption by companies, the replacement of ovens has become a priority for the other companies in the complex. “Many still don’t use gas because there are not enough specialized companies to meet the demand”, Longo points out. Conversion of the ovens is the first stage of an energy project. “We have to move toward replacing the burners, which is more expensive, but we are already looking for alternatives for new investments”, says Hans Otto Kurt Beran, president of Sindicer and director of the Cerâmica Ana Maria. Also being assessed with the Spanish specialists is the possibility of adapting the ovens to co-generation of electricity. “The ceramics industry’s ovens throw off hot gas into the atmosphere, which could be used to produce electricity”, says Longo.
The third purpose of the partnership, and perhaps the most complicated, is to improve the design of the pieces. A group of three Liec technicians is working with the manufacturers, endeavoring to give personality to the companies’ products. The great problem, in the opinion of the president of Sindicer, is that most companies have not established their market focus and, therefore, they are unable to give their pieces any identity. “At least 70% of the complex’s production is focused on low income consumers. This devalues our product, does not produce good profits and discourages companies from investing in design”, he explains, describing the cruel vicious circle into which the local producers are plunged.
Another feature of the consumer market that impedes innovation is that at least 30% of production is sold from door to door throughout Brazil, by a battalion of 15,000 sales people. “Sales need to be diversified. Little advantage is still taken of the market for small and large stores, for example, precisely because there are not enough quality products”, he says. In this band of C and D class consumers, artistic ceramics competes in the market with acrylic and aluminum items and with gifts sold at low prices. “Italian and Portuguese ceramics do not compete on price, but on their design and quality”, compares Beran.
Replacing ceramics materials and converting the ovens has already begun showing results. Cerâmica Pirâmide, for example, began exporting items three months ago. Nowadays, overseas sales account for 5% of monthly sales.”We have closed our fourth deal”, celebrates Varaldo, the company president. Unicer, a consortium of eight manufacturers, last year, exported a container to Africa. “But such deals are still scant”, points out the president of Sindicer. Investment in the design and the quality of product, he predicts, will bring new opportunities for the companies.
The Porto Ferreira ceramics complex, which began in 1957, lived its golden age at the end of the 80’s. At that time, 260 small companies formed the basis of the economy of the 43,000-inhabitant town. “Nowadays, investment in technology gives us the prospect of survival”, says Beran. In Spain, for example, it is the economic base of the Castellon de la Plana region, desired by consumers the world over. Ceramics production has the advantage of having very low costs and employing a large amount of labor. Beran calculates that the investment required to create one job is no more than R$1,500.
The ceramics complex’s modernization project is long-standing. In 1989, Sindicer and the Porto Ferreira city hall entered into a technical agreement with the State of São Paulo Science, Technology, and Economic Development Department and with the Technological Research Institute (IPT) to introduce a research laboratory and look for new production technology. The distance from São Paulo, delay in releasing budget allocations and a lack of technicians, however, prevented that the project from taking off. “We wanted closer partners and we reached out to the Liec”, recalls Beran.
The recovery began with an Integrated Project, financed by FAPESP. This, since September last year, has been included in the Cepids programs, the purpose of which is to undertake innovative research helping to develop new technology. Also taking part in this Cepid are researchers from the São Paulo State University (Unesp/Araraquara), the University of São Paulo (USP/São Carlos), and the Brazilian Center for Research into Physics (CBPF/CNPq), the Institute for Energy and Nuclear Research (Ipen/São Paulo) and the Brazilian Ceramics Center (CCB).
A history of good partnerships
Partnerships with companies have been a project undertaken by the Liec for more than 13 years, with financial support from FAPESP, the Studies and Projects Finance Organization (Finep), the Brazilian System of Support to Micro and Small Companies (Sebrae), the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) and companies. The first of them was signed up with the Cerâmica Saffran. The objective of the research was to lower costs and to increase the productivity of refractory materials. The interaction with White Martins also led to the development of manufacturing technology for controlling the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere of the ovens during the firing, without affecting production.
The new process, adopted by the Cerâmica Gerbi, in Mogi Guaçu, improved the quality of firing the organic material, enabling productivity gains to be made, reducing the total firing cycle from 44 to 35 minutes and increasing production in the manufacturing oven by 30%. The invention, patented by White Martins and UFSCar, was awarded the Technological Innovation Prize given by the National Association of Construction Materials Manufacturers (Anamaco).
The new technology increased the amount of oxygen surrounding the ceramic linings, speeds up the elimination of organic material, lowering the firing time. Thus, the speed through the oven and productivity are increased, and the firing cycle is shortened. In the wall-lining firing oven, for example, production rose from 290,000 square meters a month to 360,000 square meters, an increase of 24%. The process also enables less pure raw materials to be used, without impairing the quality of the product.
The Liec has been undertaking research since 1989, with the Companhia Siderúrgica Nacional (CSN), and this has led to a total return of US$ 70 million. These pieces of research have produced, for example, new technology for repairing the steelworks blast furnace. “We achieved a world record. The average time taken for repairing the blast-furnace, which was between 28 and 31 days, fell to 20, representing an estimated saving of US$ 2.5 million for the company”, tells Longo.Republish