|FORFRONT OF TECHNOLOGY|
|REVIVING LOCAL ECONOMY|
Founded in 1979, Del Conca has been producing ceramic tiles for more than 30 years. With a strong international presence, Del Conca services a wide range of residential and commercial clients throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe. The company exports 75% of its production, half of which goes to the U.S. — its main market for exports. Del Conca has been exporting to the U.S. for more than 25 years, and has become one of the main Italian exporters to the U.S. in the last 15 years, which sparked the idea for the company to come and plant its roots in American soil.
“This knowledge of the market and our presence here in the U.S. market brought us to consider the idea of producing here to better serve our customers, the market and to strengthen our position here in the U.S.,” said Paolo Mularoni, president of Del Conca USA, at the grand opening of the Loudon facility on March 26, 2014. “This was a long thought process. We started evaluating this possibility in 2008, and we traveled several states’ cities and counties. We saw that there were many places available. We looked in Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina, but in the end, we decided to come to Tennessee because it’s geographically central, with regards to the raw materials, and it is very close to infrastructure and highways, so we can reach our customers better and quicker.”
The Mularoni family first visited Loudon, TN, in 2008, when they explored the state and all it had to offer. “We drove through the countryside, and we didn’t really understand this place,” explained Mularoni. “We thought it was a beautiful place, but we didn’t know how to build a factory here. Then, we came back several times, and during this process, we discovered the area, the community, and we discovered the strategic location of this [area]. It’s centrally located, in regards that our raw material is sourced here (within a range of 300 miles), and we’re close to the highways and a large part of the population of the U.S. Gradually, we convinced ourselves — and were convinced by the people around us — and we found that this was the right place to be.”
A large part of the family’s decision to come to Tennessee, aside from its native raw materials and geographical location, was because of the one-on-one attention they received from various state and local officials, such as Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam and Loudon Mayor Judy McGill Keller, who made it their initiative to get to know the Mularoni’s on a more personal level. “In August of 2012, I was on a holiday with my wife in Rubino, a city of art in Italy, when I got a call on my cell phone,” said Enzo Mularoni, CEO of the Del Conca Group. “On the other side [of the line], there was a man who said his name was Bill Haslam, the governor of Tennessee. I said, ‘You’re kidding me. What did we do wrong?’ I thought it was a joke. It was not a joke. Bill Haslam said, ‘Enzo, I saw your project, and I know our state is in competition with other states. I know you’re a good company, and I wanted to call you just to say we want you in Tennessee. You have to come to Tennessee. We will make it happen. We will help you with the process, but please believe us, we want you here.’ This was something strange and new to me, but through that phone call, I understood that he really wanted me here, which helped a lot to make the final decision.”
Enzo Mularoni’s son, Paolo, said they took their time to choose the right location and ultimately made the decision to purchase a 27-acre plot of land in the Sugarlimb Industrial Park in Loudon in December of 2012. “A long time passed, but in December of 2012, we started the process of designing to prepare for the construction of the new factory,” he said. “On March 26, 2013, the first trailer and first piece of equipment was brought onsite in order to begin the grading work, which started soon after [in April of 2013]. This was exactly one year ago [from the grand opening of the facility].”
The building process for a facility of this stature — which incorporates a 10,764-square-foot building with a showroom and administrative offices that’s detached from the main factory — is generally extensive, but the professionals Del Conca USA hired completed the facility in a record time of 10 months. “This was a very fast process that brought us to produce the first tiles in February of 2014,” said Paolo Mularoni. “This has been a challenge, of course — a very tough and intense year — but we are very happy and also proud of the result. Not just because it was done quickly or because we feel the moment is right for this market of porcelain tiles that is expanding in the U.S, but also because we think this plant is state of the art. We’ve used the best available technology in the industry that is all Italian machinery, Italian technology.
“We strongly believe we’ve built a plant that will allow us to do our job the best way possible, producing highest quality porcelain tiles, producing them efficiently and producing them while respecting the environment,” added Mularoni.
To get the company up and running, an initial investment of $50 million was made, $30 million of which was invested for top-of-the-line Italian tile production technology. Around 350 containers of machinery arrived from Italy in March of 2013 and were installed within the facility. SACMI supplied the production equipment — presses and kiln — and helped with the logistics. LB Officine Meccaniche S.p.A. supplied the technological equipment for the processing of raw materials, and Durst supplied digital inkjet technology. For the Americanization of technical solutions, Mazzi Electric was employed to help the company solve some minor problems that they encountered. “It was a very big team effort,” said Paolo Mularoni.
The plant also utilizes a unique Wi-Fi system from a communication systems building 500 feet away, which controls the majority of the forklifts used inside the factory. “They’re monitored by software and computers, which means there’s no driver,” said Davide Mularoni, who led tours of the facility at the grand opening. “They are programmed to go pick up materials from a certain location/pallet, to drop them off in a certain location, etc. — avoiding any preparation mistakes.” These automated forklifts — which don’t even need to run on tracks because of their succinct programming — also have sensors, so if someone walks in front of them, they will automatically stop and won’t start moving again until the worker moves out of the way. The forklifts are mainly used in the “warehouse” section of the plant, which consumes nearly half of the total area, where finished tile products are packaged and stored for shipping.
In each part of the plant, a different process occurs, with different types of machinery being utilized. Near the entrance of the facility, the raw materials such as sand and clay are stored, which Del Conca USA receives from areas in west Tennessee and as far west as North Carolina. After the raw materials are collected, they are transported into “hoppers” — funnel-shaped containers that mix and store them in readiness for dispensation — and are then put onto conveyors to move onto the second process. The raw material mix is dried in a large SACMI spray dryer — the only piece of material in the Loudon facility that differs from the machinery utilized in Del Conca’s Italian factories — and then transported to a large mill, where the stones are mixed with some water to create a perfect mixture.
The materials are then re-dried and sent to the third section of the factory, where the pressing occurs. Currently, they have two presses and one kiln, provided by SAMCI, with more machinery to be installed in the future, and are only producing four sizes — 6 x 6, 12 x 12, 12 x 24 and 18 x 18 inches. “The production of each press is about 3,000 tiles per hour, so we’re producing about 6,000 tiles per hour with the two presses,” said Davide Mularoni.
Since the tiles have 5% humidity after they’re pressed, they can’t be immediately fired so they have to be dried for an additional 20 minutes. “After the tiles are dried, they need to be decorated before they’re fired and glazed,” explained Davide Mularoni. “The decoration is 100% digital technology. In the past, we’ve used various decoration techniques, but now we have digital technology — a printer with software that we decide what designs we want to impress on tiles. It takes seconds to print the designs on tiles.” Two printing machines are utilized for this process from companies Tek Mak and Cora Impanti.
“A very big advantage of ink jet technology is that we can decide how many different designs to have,” said Davide Mularoni.”You can have an endless number of different designs. For example, with our wood-effect design, when you cut a piece of wood, every single cut is different, and this is what we’re trying to imitate. You can get, however, as many looks you want, with all different graining.” To ensure all designs are aesthetically in tune, there is a “quality control board” positioned up next to the printers, displaying several different samples of what the finished product should look like, so if an inspector doubts any piece of tile, it can be brought over to the board.
After design is imprinted onto the tiles, an extra layer of glaze is applied — seemingly opaque since it temporarily masks the design — and the tiles are then fired in a 450-foot-long kiln for 45 minutes at 1200 degrees Celsius (2192 degrees Fahrenheit). The tiles shrink by 6 to 8% because of the temperature. “After the tiles come out of kiln, they’re only 100 degrees Celsius; they cool very rapidly because the last part of kiln has fresh air to blast tiles and cool them down,” said Davide Mularoni.“They are then cut into sheets and put next to each other, and an automated machine comes from the other side and picks them up by a magnet and brings them over to a pallet.”
Tiles are divided into boxes, which are accurately labeled, based on shape and caliber because not all tiles are the same. “Tiles are going to be cut for the correct number of tiles in each box,” Davide Mularoni went on to say. “There are a different number of tiles in each box, depending on the sizes of tiles. This is all done automatically by the automated forklifts and other machines.” Once boxes are filled, they’re packaged in twos with plastic wrapping with the Mar Pak AT30.
Once packages are finalized, the automated forklifts transport them to the other side of the facility that serves as the warehouse to store, which also has several loading docks for easy shipping. When orders need to be fetched, the technology the forklifts possess also informs them of exactly which boxes to retrieve product from; for example, if an order calls for a half box of one product, the forklift knows to fetch the half-full box instead of opening up a brand new one. Though the facility relies heavily on technology — from automated forklifts to machines that check for defects by laser — after each process, a worker is present to physically review each tile to ensure there are no defects, bubbles or imperfections.
To keep up with the current environmental trend and decrease its carbon footprint, Del Conca USA is also committed to green practices, recycling and reusing as much of its waste as possible. “We recycle 100% of our fired and unfired waste, and also recycle 100% of water used for cleaning and production,” said Davide Mularoni. “And when tiles are deemed imperfect, they are broken up and sent back to the raw material area in the beginning of the facility to be reused, so they’re also recycled. We’re a green factory; there’s a very close circle and close loop, and this means that we really don’t discharge anything into the sewer or the landfill.”
Del Conca USA utilizes new spray dryers, different from those in the Italian factories, which are also meant to conserve more energy. “They’re a new model that they don’t have in Italy — bigger and more efficient, so they save energy,” said Davide Mularoni. Another product, Del Conca Fast, an installation system for the dry-laying of tile floors without adhesives (mortar) or grout that was developed and patented by Del Conca, can be re-used, adding to the company’s environmentally-conscious efforts.
Del Conca isn’t just beginning its green practices with the Loudon facility, as the Del Conca Group is a founding member of Green Building Council Italia in Italy, whose goal is to offer eco-friendly materials that enable builders to achieve LEED certification.
Along with contributing to the overall betterment of society, Del Conca USA’s presence in Loudon is positively affecting the local community. Since it opened, 97 workers have been employed, the majority of whom are from Loudon County.
At the time of TILE’s visit, Paolo Mularoni explained how there are several “phases” of Del Conca USA’s factory in Loudon. The first phase was the actual opening, where limited machinery was installed and 97 local workers were hired to get the factory up and running. However, a second phase will follow within the next four to six years — contingent on the amount of business — with an additional $20 million investment and the hiring of 78 to 80 locals, which will almost double their current workforce. “By year five, there is projected payroll of nearly $6 million,” said Mayor Keller. “Indirect employment represents $2.2 million, but total indirect and direct payroll is $8,200,000 — a significant economic impact on this community. It’s also a large fiscal impact. There will be $2,188,000 in annual retail sales, $198,000 annual sales tax collections, $75,000 of annual residential property tax, $670,000 in annual industrial property tax and $790,000 in total sales and property tax revenue.”
Keller stated how she and other officials are extremely grateful Del Conca USA decided to build the plant in Loudon, and in turn, employ more Tennessians. “I’ve been involved in economic development in this community since the early 80s, and I have never seen a project move like this project moved, ever,” she said. “So much credit has to go to the Mularoni family, the fact that you all had a vision, you knew where you were going, you wanted this to happen and you made this happen. But in addition to that, everyone else got into the act — the city of Loudon, Loudon County, the Utilities Board, the County Commission, City Council. Everyone said, ‘Yes, we want them here. What can we do to make this happen?’ The state was wonderful with their efforts — everybody worked together. On the frontend, they recognized the impact that this would have on their community.”
Allen Borden, assistant commissioner of business development for statewide operations for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development — an entity focused on job creation around the state and responsible for expansion of existing companies, the recruitment of companies to Tennessee and the fast track incentive team — presented Enzo and his family the Tennessee flag signed by Gov. Haslam commemorating the grand opening. “You are going to have one of the best workforces that you will have in any of your facilities in the world,” he said. “The Tennessian workforce is what we think sets us apart from other states, so I think you’re going to have many years of success here. We’re happy to have you.”
To better prepare the newly employed Tennesseans, Del Conca brought handfuls of workers overseas to Italy in January of 2014 for one month of highly professional, hands-on training at its facilities. Some Italian workers from Del Conca’s factories in Italy were hired to work at the new Loudon facility as well, so they also traveled overseas to America to be trained in Del Conca USA facility’s designated training room.
Along with increased employment, Del Conca USA also left plenty of space open in the new plant to install more machinery, and in turn, increase production in the upcoming future — the last and final “phase.” At the time of TILE’s visit, enough space was left inside of the factory to double or even triple the amount of current machinery.
Del Conca USA’s first facility, which operates around the clock, was created within a very short timeframe — with only five months elapsing from the first piece of machinery installed to the first piece of tile produced. Production began about three months ago on February 10, 2014. This year, Del Conca USA’s projected production is 30 million square feet of tile, which they expect to double by next year.