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The latest ship loaded with clay and kaolin, a rock mostly used for tile production, left the port of Mariupol just days before the Russian army invaded Ukraine. She disembarked at the end of February in the port of Ravenna, in Emilia-Romagna, to unload tons of material in the warehouses that supply the companies in the ceramic industrial district of Sassuolo, in the province of Modena, and that of artistic ceramics in Faenza. Since the supply of raw materials from Ukraine was suspended due to the war, technicians and chemists have been working to try to maintain the high quality of the products that in recent decades have contributed to the growth of the Italian ceramic industry. In fact, 25 percent of the raw materials used in the ceramic sector in Italy and most of the clays considered valuable, indispensable for the production of the most expensive tiles with a high profit margin, arrived from Ukraine.
The companies in the district will have to do without it: to find a compatible and competitive alternative, insiders say, you first need to find another recipe, that is, a new mixture of clays, kaolins and feldspar with material imported from other countries.
Clay and kaolin were extracted mainly in the quarries located in Donbass, a territory that on paper is part of Ukraine but which since 2014 has been occupied by pro-Russian separatists. It was one of the first areas to be occupied by the Russian army.
In recent years, the export of this type of raw materials has developed thanks to the construction of roads specially designed for the passage of large trucks heading towards the ports of Mariupol and Odessa. The ships that supplied the European ceramic districts departed from there. In 2021 5.21 million tons of raw materials arrived at the port of Ravenna, 1.57 million more than the previous year, affected by the pandemic.
Clays from Ukraine are precious for their characteristics: they have a high “raw toughness”, in other words greater strength and cohesion than the material extracted in other countries. Ukrainian clays are therefore suitable for the production of large-format tiles with thin thicknesses, which are increasingly in demand on the market and not easy to make with other raw materials.
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Massimo Muratori, general secretary of Femca CISL of central Emilia, the union of ceramic, textile and chemical workers in the Modena and Reggio Emilia area, says that since the beginning of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, companies have understood that the effects on imports of materials would have been significant and they put technicians to work in their workshops. “I understand that many of the tests done so far have gone well,” he explains. «The goal is to maintain the same quality and the exact same product with a different recipe. It is not easy to find the right mixture: if there is more carbon in the earth arriving from other countries, the tile will be slightly darker or will have a different consistency than that produced with Ukrainian raw materials that also have a better yield: from a certain quantity of Ukrainian clay it is possible to produce more tiles ».
It is not a totally new job: for years the companies have set up laboratories to check the quality of the imported material and study light corrections to the recipes. Without a whole quota of material, however, more complicated and original choices will have to be made.
The composition of the tiles, in fact, is also linked to the market, oriented by aesthetic choices dictated more by fashion and less by production and procurement logics. With new needs for companies, a change in preferences towards new types of tiles is not excluded. “We convinced the market to prefer white-body tiles,” continues Muratori. “We will also have to start thinking about a greater production with red pasta”.
The latest ship to arrive in the port of Ravenna with the clays quarried in Ukraine will guarantee supplies for at least a couple of months. It is difficult to predict what the situation in Donbass will be like at the end of May. Given the consequences of the war in Mariupol, one of the cities where the clashes were most violent and still besieged, it is unrealistic to think that mining will resume in a short time. The quarries were forced to stop working and all foreign employees, including many Italians, left Ukraine.
The alternative is to buy the raw material from other countries such as Germany, France, Austria, Turkey, Portugal, but also Sardinia and Piedmont. In addition to finding new recipes for tiles, replacing 25 percent of the raw material in a short time brings two other problems. The first is to understand how to transport the material to Emilia-Romagna, whether by sea or by train: in both cases, supply times depend on the distance from the exporting country and on the available infrastructures. The second problem concerns prices, which are destined to increase due to the sudden decrease in supply. Among other things, quarrymen from other countries may not be able to fully satisfy the growth in demand.
But the interruption of the import of raw materials from Ukraine is only one of the problems that the sector is facing. Like all companies that consume large quantities of energy, the producers in the Sassuolo district are also struggling with the significant increase in prices. The gas, necessary to power the kilns in which the tiles are fired, costs eight times as much as last year, said Giovanni Savorani, president of Confindustria Ceramica, during the hearing of the Environment and Production Activities committees last week in the Chamber. «Our activities have gone into crisis and we have over 2,500 people on layoffs. It is anachronistic to think of having to ask for layoffs with such a large amount of orders “.
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In fact, during the pandemic, there was a significant growth in demand for tiles, a coating that is easy to clean and therefore more hygienic than others. Second the data disseminated by Confindustria Ceramica, in 2021 the sector recorded sales of 459 million square meters, 12 percent more than in 2019, and exports of 367 million square meters, 13 percent more than in 2019. The growth has affected all the main international markets with significant increases in the United States, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. Total production grew by around 25 percent to 430 million square meters. Like many other energy-intensive sectors, ceramic producers have also asked the government for help to limit the costs of gas and electricity.
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So far the only means to reduce costs have been quite drastic: some companies have turned off the ovens because it would have been more expensive to leave them on rather than not produce, others have activated redundancy procedures until the end of the year. To be precise, it is an extraordinary layoff for a sudden and unexpected event, not attributable to company management. In fact, it is a preventive layoff that allows companies to limit work in a very short time, two or three days, when energy costs are too high.
“The consequences are already worrying,” explains Muratori. «The industrial area of Modena and Reggio Emilia is based on ceramics: the real risk is an impoverishment of the territory. If the market conditions linked to the supply of raw materials and energy costs continue like this, it is not excluded that someone decides to relocate. The government must put a limit on the price of gas and spending constraints should not be taken into account at this stage as was done during the pandemic. The energy crisis is like a new pandemic ».
Workers in the Modena and Reggio ceramics district are about 15 thousand, 80 percent of the workers in the sector nationwide. In addition to direct employees, the related industries must also be considered: engineering companies, components, packaging, shipping companies. One of the most important companies in the related sector is Sacmi, which produces ovens and machinery for the production of tiles. It is located in Imola, has over 1.3 billion in turnover and 4,600 employees. Paolo Mongardi, the president, also leads Acimac, the association representing the manufacturers of ceramic machines.
Sacmi has long been developing new ovens powered by “green” or “clean” hydrogen, produced with the electrolysis process (ie separation of hydrogen and oxygen) of water, using a machine powered by renewable sources. It is a technology that allows you to do without gas, but also quite expensive and for which the government has not provided incentives or economic contributions. “The hydrogen-fired oven is a solution that looks to the future and is currently very expensive,” explains Mongardi. “From an economic point of view, they are only convenient if the price of gas remains very high. Furthermore, there is no distribution of hydrogen on the network, so it will be very difficult to do without gas, at least for now. The ceramic sector is one of the driving forces of Italian exports: at this stage it should be supported by the state. Just as household bills are lowered, interventions are also needed for companies “.