The last ship loaded with clay and kaolin, a rock used for the production of tiles, left the port of Mariupol a few days before the Russian army invaded Ukraine. It disembarked at the end of February at 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 arrived from Ukraine and most of the clays considered valuable, indispensable for the production of the most expensive tiles with a high profit margin.
Tile manufacturers will have to do without it. In order to find a compatible and competitive alternative, they will need to find another “recipe”. In other words, a new mixture of clays, kaolins and feldspar with material imported from other countries.
Clay and kaolin were extracted mainly in the quarries in Donbass, a territory that on paper is part of Ukraine, but that 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 headed for the ports of Mariupol and Odessa. The ships that supplied the European ceramic districts departed from there.
Clays from Ukraine are unique as they have 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.
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, tile manufacturers have understood that the effects on imports of materials would have been significant and they put technicians to work in their workshops to find a way to maintain the same quality and the exact same product with a different recipe.
It is not a totally new job. For years tile manufacturers have set up laboratories to check the quality of the imported material and study light corrections to the recipes. Without an entire 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 trends, and less by production and procurement logics.
The latest ship to arrive to 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 that period. Given how things are progressing in Ukraine, it is unrealistic to think that mining will resume anytime soon. The quarries were forced to shut down and all foreign employees left Ukraine.
The alternative is to purchase the raw material from other countries such as Germany, France, Austria, Turkey, Portugal, but also some Italian regions, such as Sardinia and Piedmont. In addition to finding new recipes for tiles, replacing 25 percent of the raw material in a short period of time brings two other problems. The first is to understand how to transport the material to the factories, whether by sea or by train: in both cases, supply times depend on the distance and on the 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 growing demand.
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, tile manufacturers are also struggling with the significant increase in prices. The gas, necessary to feed the kilns in which the tiles are fired, costs eight times as much as last year.
Tile manufacturers have asked their respective governments for help limit the costs of gas and electricity.
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 layoffs 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.
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