CLEMSON, SC — International trade in ceramic tile will be at stake today as delegates from 15 countries begin meeting at Clemson University to develop new standards for a building material that’s easy to take for granted but covers floors, walls and countertops around the world.
Decisions made at the Madren Conference Center on campus through Friday are expected to influence the global tile business at a time when the U.S. industry is bouncing back from years of factories moving overseas.
Delegates will consider several crucial questions about technologically advanced ceramic tiles that experts see as the future of construction. Some tiles fight smog, while others help prevent the spread of disease by hindering microorganism growth.
Technical Committee 189 has met in Istanbul and London, but this will be its first gathering at Clemson, said John Sanders, the committee secretary and executive director of Clemson University’s National Brick Research Center.
“The standards we develop are used to level the playing field,” Sanders said. “They facilitate international trade in this type of commodity.”
The committee is part of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), based in Geneva, Switzerland. Scores of technical committees set standards for a variety of industries, ranging from screw threads to fire safety.
State Sen. Larry Martin will welcome the delegations to Clemson. He plans to open the conference Wednesday with remarks on the importance of the discussions and the value of partnerships between industry and the academic community.
A longtime supporter of Clemson University, Martin said the industry-university alliance greatly benefits the Upstate community and South Carolina.
The Clemson meeting will set the stage for an international audience to see the role Upstate researchers play in setting global standards for tiles.
Tiles are tested for the industry in the Bishop Materials Laboratory and the TCNA Product Performance Testing Laboratory. The Anderson facility is shared by the National Brick Research Center and its trade-group partner, The Tile Council of North America, through a joint industry-university partnership.
“We felt it was important for committee members to see these research facilities,” said Eric Astrachan, the council’s executive director and head of the committee’s U.S. delegation.
“It will provide a lot of confidence to the other delegates because they will see that things we’re bringing to the discussion are backed up with hard science,” he said. “When people have questions or bring up alternative ideas in the discussion of standards, we can check it out in the lab.”
Tile standards are mandatory in the European Union, Sanders said. While standards are voluntary in the United States, many companies comply because failing to do so would make it tougher to sell in the U.S. and harder to export goods, he said.
U.S. demand for tiles is rising as the housing market recovers, Astrachan said. While about 70 percent of the nation’s tiles are imported, the domestic industry is making a comeback, he said.
The availability of natural gas has lowered costs to run factories. The United States also has the advantage of plentiful raw materials, highly skilled workers and lower labor costs than Europe, he said.
“We are seeing the largest increase in the number of factories in recent memory,” Astrachan said. “A lot of those are being built in Tennessee and Texas.”
The proposed standards that experts develop in Clemson will be sent to 28 participating countries that will later vote on whether to adopt them. Each nation gets one vote, and it takes at least 75 percent to adopt a standard.
Delegations are expected from Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Norway, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom. As many as 60 delegates and 20 industry representatives are expected to attend.
Delegates will consider standards for microbial tiles that create an antiseptic environment, which is crucial for hospitals. They also will develop standards for smog-fighting tiles that break down volatile organic compounds and produce a cleaner atmosphere. The agenda also includes a discussion of standards for a tile to be labeled sustainable. Builders get credit toward LEED certification for using sustainable materials, so tax incentives could be on the line, Sanders said.
Astrachan said he expects the meeting to be a boost for the U.S. tile industry.
“It gets decision-makers together talking about standards that are relevant to where the industry is going,” he said. “It’s healthy for the North American factories to have the meeting here, so that it’s easy for them to participate and have more say and more buy-in to these kinds of discussions.”
The National Brick Research Center is part of Clemson’s College of Engineering and Science. The dean, Anand Gramopadhye, said he welcomes the delegates.
“They will have an opportunity to see one of Clemson’s world-class facilities,” he said. “Our partnership with The Tile Council of North America enables us to provide crucial testing and research services to the industry. The technology we employ here can help inform decisions that have a global impact.”
While several important topics are on the agenda, the annual meeting of Technical Committee 189 won’t be all business. In keeping with a tradition of showing delegates some of the local sites, the schedule includes a trip to Fluor Field for a Greenville Drive baseball game.