Volume 13 | Issue 1 | Year 2010

Swindell-Dressler International Company (SDIC) raised the standards bar as far as kilns and plant projects. In business for nearly a century (its roots date back to 1915), SDIC boasts an achievement record that testifies to technical flexibility, reliability, versatility and performance.
An industry pacesetter, SDIC boasts unmatched kiln control and temperature uniformity that effectively addresses numerous firing challenges. As such, the Pittsburgh, Pa.-based company’s impact is revolutionary and global. SDIC provides products and services to an international client base, offering technical innovation to the heavy clay, whiteware and technical ceramics segments. Established ceramics companies and start-up enterprises in developing countries have reaped the benefits of SDIC’s wide-ranging expertise. The company has assembled more than 1,000 production kilns and 50 ceramic plants in at least 35 countries.

“As we have international customers we face international competition, but what sets us apart is our flexibility,” says SDIC President Jim Hopkins. “We collaborate with customers rather than force our vision and technology on them. Our clients tell us that we’re very easy to work with. Our overall approach to project management and customer satisfaction leads to repeat business.”

KILN REVOLUTIONARY
The company has milestoned its 94-year history with groundbreaking advancements. “For instance, in 1915, we built the world’s first tunnel kiln,” says Hopkins.

That’s the year that Philip Dressler founded American Dressler Tunnel Kilns Inc., SDIC’s predecessor. The first tunnel kiln, specifically a muffle kiln built for Universal Sanitary Manufacturing Company in New Castle, Pa. (which later evolved into the Universal Rundle Corporation, a leading plumbing fixture manufacturer), revolutionized the firing of ceramics.

Four years later, American Dressler Tunnel Kilns built the first-ever refractory tunnel kiln, a 354-foot-long, oil-fired innovation designed for the Norton Company.

MOVING FORWARD IN THE 20TH CENTURY
Subsequent growth resulted from mergers and acquisitions. In 1930, Dressler combined forces with William Swindell and Bros., a furnace repair company established in 1850 that evolved into a furnace builder for the iron and steel industries. The merger produced the Swindell-Dressler Corporation, a new company that offered metallurgical furnaces and ceramic kilns to the refractory, whiteware, tile and abrasives industries.

When the Chicago-based Pullman Incorporated purchased the business in 1959, the ever-evolving Swindell-Dressler expanded into heavy engineering and construction. Six years later, it assembled its first complete refractory plant.

Geographic expansion accompanied technological development. By 1980, the renamed company (Pullman Swindell) began designing and building plants for various purposes in Poland, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Indonesia, Columbia, Venezuela, Mexico, Canada and the United States.

During that pivotal year, Wheelabrator-Frye acquired the operation and teamed it with The Rust Engineering Company, then the United States’ sixth-largest engineering firm. Subsequently, the Swindell furnace group was sold in 1981, and the remaining original ceramic group took back its familiar Swindell-Dressler name and functioned as a subsidiary of the Rust International Corporation. By mid-decade, the ceramic group moved to its present location in Coraopolis, just outside of Pittsburgh. The site includes assembly shops, research and development laboratories, an engineering department and sales and administrative offices.

THE NARRATIVE CONTINUES
In 1991, Pittsburgh-based private investors purchased SDIC from Rust Engineering. This development revitalized the company and further expanded its global and North American markets: In addition to its satellite operations in Melbourne, Australia (established in the 1960s), SDIC now had offices in Mexico City. Moreover, SDIC became a stand-alone firm specializing in the design, assembly and installation of kilns and complete plants for the global ceramic industry.

“We’re mainly an engineering and construction company, so we don’t have a lot of manufacturing capabilities. Rather, we’re an assembler,” clarifies Hopkins. “We prefabricate kilns in our plants. Some kilns can be shipped in sections to a job site. Other kilns, such as bell kilns, can be totally factory built and shipped to the job site in one piece, depending on their size.”

All the while, SDIC continued developing even more innovations. “In 1994, we introduced the world’s first Low-Set brick making process,” relates Hopkins. This trademarked process reduces the time it takes to dry and fire the brick for most clays, enabling manufacturers to expand their marketplace niche.

Also, by refining its first-fire and re-fire whiteware kilns, SDIC enabled clients within this expanding industry segment to realize maximum return on investment. Meanwhile, in the technical ceramics segment, SDIC emerged as a high-level provider of bell kilns.

SERVING THREE SEGMENTS
Today, SDIC (which has forged affiliations with The National Brick Research Institute, The Brick Industry Association and The American Ceramic Society) still divides activities among three business focus areas, as different ceramic industry players require different types of kilns and services. “We service a wide range of customers in structural clay products, whitewares and technical ceramics with a wide range of products,” says Hopkins.

The clay products group deals in face brick, paving brick, quarry tile, roof tile, structural tile and flowerpots. Indeed, through most of its existence, SDIC has been a predominant supplier for the face brick industry, assembling not only kilns and dryers but also complete plants.

SDIC’s whitewares group activities encompass sanitary ware, floor and wall tile, electrical porcelain and nucleated glass products, and dinnerware. The technical ceramics group’s focus includes refractories, abrasives, spark plugs, ferrites, carbon products, ceramic colors, electronic ceramics, automotive catalytic converter substrates and advanced ceramics.

ORGANIZATIONAL INFRASTRUCTURE
With its versatile current output – bell kilns, shuttle kilns, tunnel kilns, dryers, kiln moving car systems, and design and assembly of complete plants – SDIC requires advanced capabilities. Its Pittsburgh production facility is comprised of two buildings that include 70,000 square feet of assembly area that houses the latest equipment.

In the structural clay segment, SDIC offers complete plant engineering and assembly. To date, it has designed and constructed 46 complete plants by using state-of-the-art automation and technology. Tunnel and shuttle kilns are not only reliable but also cost-efficient. For instance, the patented Low-Set tunnel kiln decreases firing time for face bricks by as much as 80 percent. SDIC customers, in turn, can respond to their own customers’ needs much more rapidly. Key benefits witnessed within the segment include reduced fuel consumption, lower operating costs, technologically advanced designs, faster firing and drying cycles and turnkey plant construction.

SDIC has produced sanitary kilns since 1915, and its whitewares segment carries on the tradition. Today, its wide, direct-fired, single-deck tunnel and shuttle kilns represent the industry’s state-of-the-art manifestation. SDIC also builds tunnel kilns for the dinnerware industry using low profile, fast-fire designs, and it supplies both tunnel kilns and shuttle kilns for the electrical porcelain industry.

SILVER-LINED CLOUD
Within this segment, its trademarked Silver Cloud tunnel and shuttle kilns reduce both capital and operating costs for customers by reducing design cycles to permit firing more product in less time without compromising temperature uniformity guarantees. An integrated kiln design concept, the Silver Cloud system combines refractory insulation materials with the latest developments in automated production, digital process control, and kiln technologies.

Meanwhile, the diverse technical ceramics group’s activities involve working with clients to custom design the most popular kiln types including bell, shuttle and tunnel kilns, and it boasts kiln firing temperatures ranging from 1,000 to 1,870 degrees Celsius. Other key benefits include outstanding temperature uniformity and flexible kiln operation.

ON THE MOVE
SDIC’s car moving equipment is available to all manufacturers for replacements, upgrades, expansions, and new installations. Specific types of equipment include automated transfer cars, kiln and dryer pushers, cable and chain haulages, indexers, kiln car turntables, levelators, elevators and car tracking.

The company has an outstanding track record: it has designed, built and installed kiln car moving equipment since 1986, placing 450 units in 50 completed systems. The equipment is assembled at the Pittsburgh and Melbourne facilities.

Swindell-Dressler also designs, specifies, and supplies material handling equipment for heavy clay and other industries. From point of entry all the way up to shipping, the company’s staff engineers creatively construct fully integrated material handling solutions that meet capacity requirements for customers’ production systems.

SDIC’s engineering department includes individuals who have been with the company for more than 20 years. All drafting is done on computers with AutoCAD software and all engineering computers are networked. Within the department, engineering groups specialize in structural design, combustion engineering, electrical design and, for car moving systems, hydraulic design.

For research and development, SDIC operates a sizeable combustions and firing laboratory, where burners, burner modifications and new firing systems are tested.

In the 21st century economic environment SDIC offers customers more effective and cost-efficient production, as well as technological advances. All industries have their front-runners. In the ceramics industry, SDIC emerged as a leader. Even though it’s a relatively small business, its impact (and its stature) is enormous.