When looking to buy equipment for refractory maintenance, it can be tempting to choose the low-est-cost option or to make due with a bricking machine that is offered complimentary with brick. After all, the bricking machine has a dedicated and limited purpose and is not used daily. That raises the question: Why invest in a premium product for occasional use? Minimizing the initial investment may seem like the way to go. However, not all bricking machines are created equal when it comes to the total cost of ownership (TCO).
Factors such as the design and quality of the machine affect productivity and how well the installation is executed. Plants that want to complete maintenance as quickly as possible and have the best quali-ty installation must make sure to invest in equipment that is not the least expensive to buy but the least inexpensive to own.
How can operations make this distinction? There are a few key indicators to look for to help determine which machine will be the best long-term investment and offer the lowest TCO.
The most obvious and easily factored-in component of TCO is purchase price. While it can be tempt-ing to favor the cheapest possible option, operations must evaluate whether the product offers good value and what the long-term costs might be.
A bargain bricking machine may be constructed from aluminum and galvanized steel or painted wood and steel – making the machine heavy and cumbersome to handle. Such machines can tip the scales at 4,000 pounds and take five to six crew members, a forklift and 6-10 hours to set up – wasting an entire shift simply getting ready to work. Assuming a $15,000 loss per hour of downtime, that is $90,000-$150,000 just for setup.
A bricking machine constructed of strong, yet lightweight 6061-T6 aircraft-grade aluminum is only 3,087 pounds. A four-person team can easily set up the all-aluminum, pin-together machine in just 60-90 minutes, and a larger crew can finish even faster. That allows most of the shift to be used for actual installation and brings the job to completion more quickly. That’s a cost of $15,000-$22,500 for setup. Considering the differences between the fastest possible completion time for a heavy, bargain bricking machine and the slowest possible time for a strong, lightweight bricking machine, we see a savings of up to $67,500.
Further, despite the heftiness of bargain machines, they can often lack durability. They often are man-ufactured with lower-quality material that is not welded to the highest industry standards, resulting in premature cracking. These machines have a lifespan of no more than a decade and sometimes three years or less. With proper maintenance, however, a machine built with high-quality aluminum has a minimum lifespan of 20 years. That means operations could end up replacing the bargain machine two to six times over 20 years while a higher-quality machine could perform reliably throughout that time. At that point, the bargain machine starts costing more than the single investment in a higher-quality option.
Setup is just one aspect of an efficient refractory installation process. A well-designed bricking ma-chine can significantly improve installation productivity and save an operation thousands of dollars in labor with a single use.
Consider arch design. Most bargain bricking machines have only a single arch. Some bricking ma-chines are designed with a double arch, making it possible for a crew to install a second ring of brick while the first is being keyed, doubling productivity. Using a bricking machine with a dual arch, a crew can complete up to 1 meter of brick per hour compared to 0.5 meters with a single-arch machine.
A plant in Midlothian, Texas, discovered the difference. The operation previously used a refractory in-stallation method involving a single-arch bricking machine that had an average of 73.4 hours of outag-es and downtime per year. After switching to a dual-arch bricking machine, the plant’s downtime for maintenance decreased by 44%, resulting in a profit increase of $367,000 per year – providing a return on investment after just one installation.
Keying access is another design feature that has a major effect on productivity. A cutaway section in the front arch allows keying masons to have an unobstructed area and see the previously keyed ring as a guideline when placing bricks. Bargain bricking machines typically don’t include an opening in the arch, which means the installers must try to reach around the arch, reducing the speed and quality of installation. The cutaway section is a simple but effective design element that can save up to 37.5 hours per job. At a $15,000 loss per hour of downtime, that’s a potential savings of $562,500.
A quick installation and the savings associated with it, however, are meaningless if the quality is poor and results in failures. Refractory issues, such as spiraling and twisting, account for as much as 50% of unscheduled outages and are almost always tied to the quality of the installation. Downtime aside, the brick itself is a large investment that is wasted if it’s improperly installed and fails prematurely.
An important aspect of achieving a tight, high-quality installation is a bricking machine that fits the kiln and accounts for any distortions, conical sections or ovality. Bargain machines are bargains because they are manufactured with a one-size-fits-all approach. They won’t fit perfectly, which can result in air gaps between the shell and brickwork and interlocking rings. Then it’s a matter of when the premature failure will happen, not if. The initial investment will be higher, but there are bricking machines on the market that are custom-designed to fit the kiln and can provide reliable, quality installations.
The elements of a custom, high-productivity bricking machine are also elements that help achieve pre-cision that prevents unplanned, costly problems. The double arch, for example, is designed to be fully adjustable inside the kiln to accommodate distortions or tapered areas. Even if there are irregularities in the kiln, the arch holds each brick firmly against the kiln shell until the key brick is installed. Then the master valve retracts or extends all cylinders simultaneously, allowing the arch to advance to the next row. This ensures a tight fit.
The cutaway section for keying is also critical. It gives the keying mason a clear view of the previously keyed ring. The mason can then use that ring as a guide and will immediately see any open space between bricks. Should there be any sagging, it can be immediately corrected. Bargain machines have a solid arch, giving no such assurances that a problem can be identified and addressed immediately. The mistake becomes apparent when brick starts falling out.
In the short-term, choosing a bargain bricking machine is a perfectly logical move. It’s the lowest cost option for equipment that you don’t use every day, and it gets the job done. When you start looking at the long game, however, it becomes clear the bargain machine is really no bargain. When you start adding up the cost of lost time for setup, installation, outages due to installation failures and lost brick investment, the expense is exorbitant.
Spending more up front for a quality bricking machine is the long-term bargain when you consider the lifetime of the equipment, the productivity gains and advantages of a long-lasting installation. A quality bricking machine pays for itself many times over. In the total cost of ownership (TCO) game, quality wins.