Brick by brick: Building an international refractory maintenance company

By IM Staff
Published: Friday, 30 August 2019

US-based Bricking Solutions has been in the refractories kiln maintenance business for more than 50 years and has been led by managing director Heather Harding since January 2019. She shares her views on the business she runs and the wider refractories industry.

In the quiet town of Monroe in the north-western United States, around 30 miles northeast of Seattle, an unassuming tree-lined street is home to the headquarters of a business that has made itself part of US refractories history.

Bricking Solutions Inc, formerly Pneumat-O-Ring International, manufactured the industry’s first bricking machine in 1966 to give refractory installers a safer, more efficient alternative to manual installation methods.

The business was officially started in 1967 by Maurice ("Maury") Drenkel, a well-known refractory contractor, to supply rotary kiln bricking machines to refractory installers.

Bricking Solutions, as it is known today, was formed by the US business’ merger with Swedish industrial company Brokk in 1994 to create an international market participant in kiln refractory installation solutions.

To date, the company has sold more than 800 machines in 75 countries, and international sales make up more than two-thirds of its business.

Since January 2019, Bricking Solutions has been led by managing director Heather Harding, who joined the company’s marketing team in 2008.

In keeping with the company’s founding ethos, safety remains at the heart of Bricking Solutions’ approach to product development. And according to Harding, this is paying dividends with increasingly welfare-focused customers.

"Customer feedback should drive product development," she says. "Safety is a key concern for process plants worldwide. For this reason, our safety inspection cages and personal protection tunnels have always been popular products."

Cages and tunnels provide workers a sheltered area to repair and inspect the kiln, keeping them safe from the debris that commonly falls when coatings shrink and expand.

"Another safety- and productivity-enhancing product we’ve seen a lot of interest in is our kiln access ramps," Harding notes. "These are custom-designed to fit the specific needs of each facility. They use a lightweight modular design, meaning they are safe to use, but also safe and fast to install."

Harding explains that even though the refractory maintenance business has become increasingly competitive over the past decade, the company has stuck to its core business proposition and has managed to preserve both quality and margins, despite rising commercial pressures.

"Bricking Solutions has been making refractory maintenance products for more than 50 years. It’s all we do," she says. "While other manufactures have dipped their toes in the process industry, making a small selection of products as part of larger catalogues, we have taken a different approach.

"Since we are dedicated to this industry alone, we are able to produce the most efficient and safest products while maintaining our margins."

Bricking Solutions capitalizes on more than 50 years of company experience, bolstered by the several decades of combined industry knowledge among its highly skilled technical staff, to develop products that Harding says are tough for competitors to match in terms of quality, efficiency and precise application to customer requirements.

Bricking1  
Heather Harding has been at the helm of Bricking Solutions
since January 2019.
Bricking Solutions
 

Raw materials

As for any refractory products or solutions manufacturer, raw material and energy costs account for a significant part of Bricking Solutions’ business and budget planning.

"Sourcing material and parts should always be a concern for manufacturers. We choose to work with local vendors that meet our expectations of quality, availability and price," Harding says.

"By partnering with local vendors, we are able to acquire materials quickly and ensure quality control over the entire supply chain. An added benefit of sourcing local materials is the transportation cost savings, which we are happy to pass on to customers."

Over the past half-century, Harding says the company has fine-tuned its operation to use the most efficient and effective manufacturing processes, which keeps a lid on energy costs to an extent.

"We’ve been able to achieve this through experience, education and constant evaluation of our methods. Even in industrial manufacturing, new technologies are being developed every day. Bricking Solutions utilizes these new technologies to improve the quality of our products and help reduce manufacturing energy costs," she says.

Bricking Solutions is not alone in its customer-led approach to product development.

Refractory products and maintenance companies across the world consistently highlight the need to design around specific requirements, anticipating industry needs wherever they can and responding to requests for improved performance rapidly to prevent being usurped by competitors.

Supply chain management is also essential, so customers rely on carefully chosen partners to produce products and provide maintenance services that, due to bespoke contracts, no other business can easily fulfil.

Harding feels that it is important to maintain close contact with suppliers, so that the quality of raw materials does not slip and the reliability of deliveries is not compromised.

"As a custom-design manufacturer, we work closely with suppliers on many of our products. Being local, we are able visit suppliers in person on a regular basis, allowing us to foster relationships and monitor quality. We treat these relationships as partnerships, since both companies benefit by producing valuable products," she says.

Bricking2  
Bricking Solutions produces refractories kiln maintenance
products including access ramps 

Industry pressures

Where many heavy industrial companies in Europe are struggling to adapt to strict new emissions regulations, the US has so far taken a lighter-touch approach to its industrial sector.

But Harding says that tighter emissions controls around the world are having an effect on Bricking Solutions through its supply chain.

"While we are not directly affected," she says, "we feel the effects through our raw material vendors. Strict emission regulations can occasionally lead to price increases from larger industrial factories."

But, she notes, careful management of the efficiency of processes and material usage generally allows the company to adapt to price fluctuations, without greatly affecting customers.

On top of stricter global regulations squeezing the refractories sector, the US government’s increasingly adversarial approach to a number of its trading partners is causing consternation for many of its importers and exporters, including refractories companies.

"Bricking Solutions is a worldwide company. We sell roughly 70% of our products internationally, so US trade agreements are very important to us," Harding says. "Because we source our materials locally, we don’t foresee any significant problems [in that part of our supply chain]. However, we pay close attention to how agreements can affect our customers, and do our best to mitigate any negative consequences."

Harding admits that the outlook for the global refractories business and Bricking Solutions’ customer base is uncertain, with competitive pressures doubling down on top of wider macroeconomic issues.

But, she says, Bricking Solutions is well-placed to adapt to changes in the market.

"One size doesn’t fit all" is Harding’s stoical response to the suggestion that her company is facing many and varied challenges over the coming years.

"We are always finding ways to improve our line of products and create new offerings that will be beneficial to the process industry. We enjoy working closely with plants to find creative solutions to their unique challenges," she says. "As the industry evolves, we are excited for the opportunity to develop new products to meet the needs of tomorrow’s processing plants."