Clay Refractories

SIC 3255

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This category covers establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing clay firebrick and other heat-resisting clay products. Establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing nonclay refractories and all graphite refractories, whether of carbon bond or ceramic bond, are classified under SIC 3297: Nonclay Refractories.

Industry Snapshot

Refractories are mineral- and chemical-based materials with very high heat-resistant properties, which makes them ideal for use in the construction of walls, ceilings, and associated elements of iron and steel industry blast furnaces, glass manufacturing tanks, cement kilns, hot stoves, ceramic kilns, open hearth furnaces, nonferrous metallurgical furnaces, and steam boilers. Most clay refractory products are manufactured in the form of bricks, but refractory clay may also be formed into special shapes, such as the T-sections of refractory pipes or the small stands that support ceramic products during firing in a kiln. Refractories have been an essential element in heat engineering plants since the 1960s, when they were successfully used to improve performance and energy efficiency.

Although the value of shipments, number of employees, and number of establishments in the industry dropped steadily during the late 1990s and the first two years of the twenty-first century, the industry made a comeback in 2002, with $840 million in shipments, which steadily increased over the next several years before plummeting to $242 million in 2008.

The steep decline reflected the overall economy. During the late 2000s, the industry faced significant challenges as the global economy struggled through an economic recession. Clay refractories were not immune from the economic woes since they depended on the steel industry, which had plummeted 51 percent by mid-2009. Meanwhile, some of the largest refractories were idled as the industry waited for market conditions to improve. By 2010 recovery in the economy and the clay refractory industry was on the horizon. Shipments in the clay refractory industry that year were $810 million according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Organization and Structure

The clay refractory industry consists of four general product groups: refractory bricks and shapes, unshaped clay refractories, other lump or ground refractory materials, and unspecified refractories. Included in the refractory bricks and shapes category were fireclay bricks and shapes, pouring pit refractories, clay kiln furniture, and radiant heater elements. In 1995 there were 38 U.S. firms making unshaped clay refractories, including everything from refractory bonding mortars and plastic refractories to ramming mixes, castable refractories, and fire clay gunning mixes. In 1995, 15 industry firms made lump or ground refractory materials that were generally sold directly to customers in raw form or as an export.

The refractory brick and shapes industry is a highly specialized supplier to such heat manufacturing industries as iron and steel, ceramics, and glass-making. Its terminology and the specific products it sells to end-user industries are as specialized as the products they help make. For example, one industry product, known as refractory tank blocks, consists of blocks of refractory clay used in the lower portions of glass-tank furnaces. Refractory feeder parts, devices for supplying refractory raw materials to a preparation machine prior to firing in a ceramic or glass oven, comprise another industry product. Many industry products are specific to the iron and steelmaking industries. Refractory "nozzles," for example, are used in ladles for extracting molten steel; "runners" are refractory-lined channels in which molten iron flows from a blast furnace when tapped; and ladle gate parts include refractory pouring spouts for molten iron or steel. Other specialized products manufactured by industry firms include clay refractory cement; refractory tile made of fire clay; and various refractory elements used in glass manufacturing, such as glasshouse floaters, melting pots, rings, saggers, and stoppers.

One of the most common methods for manufacturing clay refractories is extrusion, in which moist refractory clay is forced by pressure through a die of specific dimensions, creating a rectangular shaft of clay that can be cut at regular intervals to form bricks. The extruded bricks are then sent through tunnel driers or dried on hot floors. Another common manufacturing process for noncomplex refractory shapes is power pressing, in which brick presses weighing as much as 3,600 tons produce bricks up to 28 inches in length. Unlike brick extruding machines, brick presses do not require large amounts of water, which simplifies the drying and handling of the bricks.

Other methods of refractory manufacture include slip casting, hydrostatic pressing, fusion casting, and hand molding. After initial forming, clay refractory bricks and shapes are often fired in tunnel-shaped kilns to strengthen the brick or shape and stabilize it at a temperature equal to or higher than it would experience in actual use--often 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit or more.

Because of its low cost in comparison to other refractories, fire clay, which is a mixture of kaolinite clay and silica sand, is the preferred material for clay refractory brick, which is classified as "low," "intermediate," "high," and "superduty," according to the temperature at which it softens when fired or baked. Typical specific uses of fire clay refractory bricks are boiler furnace linings, blast furnace linings, molten iron casting pit refractories, and other applications that do not entail extremely high temperatures.

Plastic fire clays are refractories that are moldable when mixed with water and are often used for furnace linings or as a binding agent in fire clay brick manufacture. Fire clay can be combined with other raw materials to increase its refractoriness and to reduce its shrinkage during firing. Because of improvements in the combustion properties of fuels used in industrial furnaces, performance requirements for refractory materials continue to be upgraded to extend operational life and conform to harsher furnace environments. This led to the development of "super-refractories" that consist of 50 to 80 percent alumina, a form of aluminum oxide found in minerals like corundum and bauxite, used in the manufacture of aluminum.

In 199, more than 57 percent of the materials consumed in the manufacture of clay refractories were clay, ceramic, and refractory minerals, such as kaolin and ball clay, extracted and processed by mining firms (see SIC 1455: Kaolin and Ball Clay, and SIC 1459: Clay, Ceramic, and Refractory Minerals, Not Elsewhere Classified). More than 18 percent consisted of clay or nonclay refractories, while less than 2 percent came from industrial chemicals.
Between 1972 and 1987, the value of clay refractories shipments more than doubled from $336 million to more than $788 million. Shipments in 1997 reached $1.1 billion and then declined until 2001, when shipments were only $762 million. Over the same period, the cost of materials dropped from $552 million to $390 million, and industry employment decreased from 5,781 to 3,801 workers. A number of factors contributed to this downward trend, including a decrease in the production of steel around the world; the use of higher-grade refractory materials; the use of new nonrefractory technologies in heat engineering industries; improvements in the durability of refractories already produced and sold; and the discontinuation of thermal pretreatment in the use of some raw materials.

The United States both imported and exported clay refractory products in the first decade of the 2000s. The United States imported $174 million in clay refractory material in 2006 and exported $188 million. Canada was another major exporter of the product, shipping $32 million worth in 2006 (17 percent of all exports). Other major exporters were Mexico (15 percent), Germany (14 percent), and Hungary (9 percent).

Industry trends in the clay refractory industry in the middle of the first decade of the 2000s included the emergence of seamless refractory furnace linings to reduce air leakage into and out of industrial furnaces. Improvements in furnace operation and refractory materials resulted in increases in the number of tons of steel (up to 1 million) that could be produced before refractory linings needed replacing. Partnerships were also formed between refractory suppliers and steelmakers to develop new refractory materials and techniques. The industry continued to seek ways to find purer grades of refractory minerals to increase the temperature-resisting limits of refractory products.

The long-term trend for increased automation of refractory manufacturing processes, such as automatic brick batching, also continued in the middle and late years of the first decade of the 2000s. The development of robotic and remote-control gunning machines enabled furnaces to be relined and refractory coatings to be applied without the expense of temporarily shutting down the furnace. The major issues facing refractories producers as the second decade of the twenty-first century began were environmental antipollution standards and increases in material costs.

Current Conditions

According to Dun & Bradstreet, in 2010 about 191 firms engaged in manufacturing clay firebrick and other heat-resisting clay products, with the industry valued at $317.6 million. The industry employed 5,139 workers. Pennsylvania and Ohio had the most clay refractories, with 23 and 20, respectively, although Alabama accounted for the largest share of industry revenues with $96.4 million. Other important states in terms of sales were Tennessee, Michigan, and Oklahoma.

Although the industry was fragmented, there were significant segments. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, fire clay blocks, high alumnia, and insulating brick shapes accounted for 59 percent of U.S. shipments in 2010, and unshaped clay refractory bonding mortars, castable refractories, and gunning mixes made up 38 percent of shipments. The Census Bureau reported that the former category accounted for the majority of imports in the industry that year ($75.8 million) as well as exports ($59.9 million).

According to the June 9, 2011, issue of Industrial Minerals the Freedonia Group projected that U.S. demand for refractory products would increase 8 percent per year to 2014, fueled by recovery in the steel industry. A 2011 report by IBISWorld agreed, predicting "steady improvements in demand for refractory products [in the United States] for use in downstream manufacturing and energy production industries" through 2015.

Industry Leaders

ANH Refractories Company (formerly RHI Refractories Holding Company), with headquarters in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, was one of the industry leaders at the end of the first decade of the 2000s and into the early 2010s. Its family of companies included A.P. Green, North American Refractories Company, and Harbison-Walker.

Harbison-Walker Refractories Co., a subsidiary of ANH Refractories Co. idled operations in September 2009, blaming a significant decrease in the steel and aluminum markets that had been ongoing since the economic recession took hold. The steel markets use refractories' temperature resistant bricks to line ovens and kilns. Since refractories and steel production complement one another, it followed that when steel demand fell 51 percent during the first seven months of 2009, refractory demand also dropped. Similar problems from low demand afflicted the more than one dozen plants ANH Refractories operated.

Magneco/Metrel, Inc., of Addison, Illinois, with $62 million in 2010 sales, was also a major player in the industry.

Workforce

The U.S. Census Bureau reported 7,003 employees in the overall refractory industry (clay and nonclay) in 2009, with 71 percent of those employed as production workers. Dun & Bradstreet showed a decrease to 5,139 employees working in clay refractories in 2010.

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