Vaal Sanitaryware: Moulding an illustrious reputation for quality

Over the years there has been a fair degree of evolution in the bathroom industry. Research and development has changed the way sinks and toilets are manufactured and have brought an element of science to products many of us take for granted.

VaalVaal Sanitaryware has been at the forefront of this technology having evolved and grown significantly since it began manufacturing ceramic sanitaryware back in 1946.

Today the company is a part of the Dawn Group and manufactures and sells a range of basins, bidets, hospital and laboratory sinks, urinals and water closets which are the culmination of years of research and development.

Distribution & Warehousing Network Limited (DAWN) manufactures and distributes quality branded hardware, sanitaryware, plumbing, kitchen, engineering and civil products through a national, strategically positioned branch network in South Africa, as well as in selected countries in the rest of Africa and Mauritius.

The Group’s Ceramic division constitutes Vaal which is the only sanitaryware supplier offering fireclay products (including medical products) and is also the only manufacturer that carries the SABS mark and who is also ISO 9001 compliant.

The business is highly focused on the specification side of the industry, working closely with architects and designers, providing them with a total solution. Vaal’s competitive advantage lies in its strong brand, visibility and relationships with architects and professionals and it is also one of only two ceramic manufacturers in South Africa.

The company was further enhanced when in 2010, Dawn Group acquired prominent bath manufacturer Plexicor, which was subsequently incorporated under its Sanitaryware Division.

The company has a nationwide footprint and operates impressive showrooms in Port Elizabeth, Bryanston, Cape Town and KwaZulu Natal and also employs representatives covering Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

Among the many innovations in recent years has been Vaal Sanitaryware’s research into water-saving toilets, which saw the company introduce a new 4.5 litre flushing cistern and a 6/3 litre dual-flush cistern.

Such invention often starts with a conversation with the company’s sales and marketing team, who will then liaise with the manufacturing arm.

After initial agreement over the basic design, work drawings are prepared for the modelling department, where a plaster model of the finished size product is created. Both marketing and manufacturing then inspect the model and having given their respective approvals, the modeller sets to work on developing the new article in its green size.

Once the article has been modelled, a block mould is produced which looks very similar in appearance to the final working mould. Trial casts are taken from the mould and are thoroughly dried before being glazed and fired under the normal manufacturing conditions.

This phase of product development involves stringent testing and typically, this is the point where potential issues are identified, allowing corrective actions. Once final approval has been given to the fired article, the company creates a ‘master mould’ which typically consists of epoxy resins, or rubber.

The company uses high pressure casting machines which use resin moulds, cast 24 hours a day, every day. All bench and battery cast moulds in the industry are manufactured using plaster of paris, while the materials supplied in the casting department are usually in a slurry form and comprise of water, which the plaster mould absorbs, leaving a semi-hard clay layer on the surface of the plaster mould.

Most working moulds have a life span of 3 months or 80 casts and are cast once a day. These moulds usually consist of 4 pieces.

Chemistry plays an important role in the production process at Vaal Sanitaryware and the company uses a number of raw materials in its ‘recipes’, with the main items including ball clays, china clays, feldspar and silica. Of course water also plays a key role and materials are mixed separately to the required consistency before being mixed together and then transported via pipelines to storage tanks. Quality control plays a vital part in this process, as the individual raw materials must meet strict specifications.

The company uses a combination of high pressure, battery and bench casting processes which leave a layer of clay on the inside face of the mould. After a couple of hours of drying, this is removed from the mould and placed in a dryer overnight. A full 24 hours later, the ware is readied for ‘dressing’ before it is glazed.

Further quality assurance takes place when the clay inspection team examines each piece for any imperfections, rectifying any small faults that it identifies. Thereafter, each item is glazed using a combination of robotics and manual techniques; the company applies 4 layers of prepared glaze in liquid form.

The glaze is comprised of a number of minerals: zircon, flaspar, quartz, calcite, kaolin and zinc oxide – and attention is given to ensuring a smooth distribution of glaze on each ware.

Yet again, a testing phase ensues, with the glaze falling under the scrutiny of laboratory tests to ensure it complies with the required specifications. When this is completed, the ware is placed onto storage tanks adjacent to the kilns.

Vaal Sanitaryware uses a variety of shuttle kilns, gas-fired tunnel kilns and top hat kilns, which for economical and practical reasons, run 24 hours a day.

This kiln is capable of firing approximately 15,500 pieces of vitreous china per week and is temperature-controlled at all stages, with temperatures reaching 1,250 degrees Celcius.

Having been fired and cooled down, each piece of ware is quality checked and then passed to the company’s stockyard, with any ware exhibiting minor blemishes sent back to the re-firing process.

Whilst techniques may have changed over the years, over 65 years of practice has made perfect and Vaal Sanitaryware continues to serve a growing Southern African market place to the highest standards.