Local electric kiln and furnace manufacturer Van Tuyl Kilns & Furnaces is increasingly catering for the export market, with the company having supplied several electrical kilns to East African countries, such as Kenya and Uganda, in the last six months.
“The kilns will be specifically used for communal pottery manufacturing projects,” Van Tuyl Kilns & Furnaces MD Ian McCullough tells Engineering News.
He points out that Van Tuyl has also sold a range of pottery kilns of varying sizes to the art departments of schools and colleges, in Mozambique and Botswana, over the last two years.
McCullough notes that about 35% of the kilns that the company manufactures are exported to countries such as Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, the Seychelles, Mauritius, Australia and Austria.
For instance, in the last 18 months, the company sold several glass kilns and pottery kilns to a ceramics artist in Austria.
He says about ten years ago, Van Tuyl’s range of 21.7 cubic feet industrial kilns accounted for about 60% of sales overall. However, McCullough says these large industrial kilns, which the company manufactures, are largely destined for the export market and currently account for only about 25% of its business operations.
The company is currently predominantly selling smaller kilns for use in the production of pottery and ceramics; glass slumping and fusing; the manufacture of jewellery, beads and mosaics; laboratories and dental moulds; furnaces for melting nonferrous metals; steel heat treatment; and general industrial applications.
He notes that about 25% of the company’s kilns are sold to schools and higher-education institutions, which use them to teach art.
Meanwhile, McCullough says there has been increased demand for the company’s range of dental kilns, which are designed to reach temperatures of 1 100 °C.
Although dental technicians require temperatures of only about 800 °C to produce moulds, McCullough says this advantage makes the kilns suitable for other applications, such as gold smelting, which requires temperatures of about 1 060 °C.
He says many companies and individuals prefer to use the Van Tuyl’s smaller dental kilns for certain projects instead of a dedicated jewellery kiln.
Refurbishing kilns comprise about 15% of the Van Tuyl’s business operations, McCullough notes.
“We refurbish a significant number of jewellery kilns because companies have refined their gold using the chemical compound borax.”
Borax corrodes silica in the kiln’s bricks, which causes significant damage to the kilns.
McCullough says the com- pany’s furnaces and kilns are only fitted with imported insulation bricks and nickel element wire – mostly from the US, Europe, India and China – as locally made insulation bricks contain too much iron, which cannot be used in electrical kilns.
McCullough notes that sourcing skilled artisans who can construct and refurbish kiln systems is challenging, owing to the shortage of skilled artisans in the country.
“I trained all three of our full-time artisans of whom two have been with the company for many years.”
He says it takes about three months of intensive on-the-job training before workers are sufficiently equipped to build and refurbish kilns on their own.
McCullough believes that the local manufacturing of kilns will remain subdued for the foreseeable future.
“Over the last 15 years, the kilns and furnaces industry has steadily declined. Currently, there are only three registered kiln manufacturers: one in Cape Town and two in Johannesburg, including Van Tuyl,” he points out.
McCullough says these three kiln manufacturers mostly provide kilns for the pottery and glass-product producers.
“However, there are also one or two local companies that manufacture only laboratory kilns, which is a nontraditional sector for kiln manufacturers.”
Further, McCullough points out that many of the sole proprietary enterprises and small-scale operations have closed over the years, which he attributes to the weak state of the South African economy and the increased volume of imports entering the country “at prices with which local manufacturers cannot compete”.
Moreover, he explains that the local manufacturing of kiln-fired clay dinner sets, and clay pots for plants, has ceased to exist and these products are “now solely imported into the country”.
“The ceramics sector currently depends on individual artists and art studios for revenue and is no longer the large industrial manufacturing industry that it once was,” he states.
Nonetheless, McCullough adds that certain local ceramic product producers, such as KwaZulu-Natal-based ceramic art studio Ardmore, manufacture a range of kiln-fired ceramic art pieces that are in demand locally and internationally.