In the green Flanders countryside just six miles south of Antwerp in Belgium, the Argex factory sits on the banks of the river Scheldt. A cement factory on the other side of the river opened up the site in 1965 to experiment in the production of expanded clay granules from the clay mined from a nearby pit. The cement factory has closed now, but Argex, founded in 1965, continues – mining some 1,100 tons of clay every day for a production capacity of 650,000 cubic yards of expanded clay granules every year.
“Argex expanded clay granules are a lightweight aggregate multipurpose building material that has many different potential applications,” explains Johny Bultheel, plant manger at Argex. “It can be used as filling for civil engineering projects such as roads, lightweight blocks, railways and waterways and is also excellent for sports fields, garden terra-cing, insulating floors and industrial products.”
Argex’s business is B2B, with 95 percent of production going to building and construction applications. The remaining 5 percent is used for landscaping and hydroculture. Some 50 percent of the total production is exported to neighboring countries and to a few countries outside Europe.
The raw clay is mined from the neighboring clay pit. “We take out around 1,000 [metric] tons [1,100 U.S. tons] each day,” says Bultheel, “but the pit is good for another 25 years, so we won’t be thinking about having to ship any in for a few years yet.” It is mixed with iron oxide and sometimes thinned with water to obtain the right consistency before being extruded and chopped, ready for baking.
The granules are baked in a two-part rotary kiln, an enormous tube that is 250 feet long and turns day and night, processing around 55 tons of granules every hour with a production capacity of 2,400 cubic yards per day. This is the biggest kiln of its type in Europe, standing out against the sky in the flat landscape. Heated using lignite, the kiln runs for two to three months at a time before being stopped for a maintenance interval of two to four weeks.
The pieces of clay are first conveyed into the drying oven part of the kiln, which rotates at a speed of one rpm. The granules spend around 2.5 hours here, at a temperature of 570 to 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit. They are then conveyed into the second part, the burning kiln, which rotates at 5.2 rpm, where they are heated for 30 minutes to a temperature of 2,012 degrees, causing expansion to take place. The expanded clay is then conveyed into a fluidized cooler where it is air-cooled to a temperature of 176 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit.
The drying process naturally breaks the granules into different sizes, ranging from one to 25 millimeters (0.039 to 0.984 inch) in diameter, each size having its own specific target usage. They are sorted and then moved onto stockpiles.
The kiln is supported by eight support roller units, each containing two bearings. Historically, these were equipped with bushings or sliding bearings, but three years ago, Argex decided to replace the support roller units, beginning with a first set of two.
“The main reason for this is the safety issue stemming from the unreliability of the sliding bearings,” explains Bultheel. “When we restart the kiln after replacing the support roller, the bearings have to be aligned absolutely perfectly. If this isn’t done accurately, the lubrication doesn’t function correctly; they can heat up the lubricant and ignite.” Indeed, the Argex plant has seen two roller fires in recent history due to misalignment in the bushings. Sometimes this overheating happens immediately, but other times it can take a week before the problem is detected. Then production must be shut down while the necessary adjustments are made. Moreover, the skills needed to adjust these older sliding bearings are gradually being lost as the workforce is renewed over time.
“Another driver for converting to roller bearings is energy consumption, which is something we always keep an eye on,” says Bultheel. “We were looking for a more modern solution with a better lubrication system and thus lower friction that could help reduce costs.”
So Argex turned to SKF. “An SKF bearing solution was the obvious choice for us,” Bultheel says. “We were already a client, and in any case, SKF is the best; we didn’t feel we needed to look anywhere else.”
The project was begun in 2008 under the supervision of George Cant from the maintenance department. The study took some time as SKF was asked to supply not just the bearings, but also the support roller and shaft, housings and base plates, with exactly the same overall dimensions as the previous solution, to facilitate and minimize the cost of the installation. The new support roller units, each weighing some 25 tons, were installed in August 2010. The units are also equipped with an automated SKF lubrication system.
“From the moment we agreed on the deal, everything went perfectly smoothly, and since we installed them, the bearings have worked perfectly,” says Bultheel. “What we wanted from SKF was a simpler, more reliable solution. In addition, this new bearings system reduces energy consumption by up to 10 percent. Given the significant investment we’ve made, we’re hoping for as long a life from the roller units as possible.” Argex is currently looking to replace the second set of support roller units on its rotary kiln and hoping to strike a deal with SKF to do so very soon.
- Created in 1965 84 employees
- Continuous process (24 hours/day, 7 days/week)
- Production capacity: 650,000 cubic yards/year
- Producing 2,400 cubic yards Argex granules/day
- Mining 1,100 tons clay/day
Argex clay granules are:
- Ecological: 100 percent clay
- Light: Density is 20 – 47 pounds/cubic foot
- Insulating (thermal and acoustic). Inert, chemically neutral. Large load-carrying capacity. Noncombustible. Unaffected by frost and heat. Excellent drainage properties.
Argex in numbers
Tons granule/hour 55
Kiln tube length in feet 250
Tons of clay/day 1,100
Cubic yards granules/day 2,400
Maximum temperature in the kiln (o F) 2,192