UNITECR: leading refractories event promotes sustainability, innovation and a rewarding career path
Imerys exhibited and presented at this week’s UNITECR, a key technical conference for the refractory industry. Experts from the Group discussed new products, sustainability and how to support young professionals in the industry.
This week, at the world’s leading technical conference for the refractory market, Imerys experts explained how the company is embedding sustainability into its offering, and how it is encouraging more young people into the industry.
UNITECR brings together refractory specialists from around the world including students, researchers, institutions, suppliers and manufacturers. This year’s conference, delayed a year due to Covid-19, was held in Chicago and was the first UNITECR event to present Imerys’ fully-formed refractories strategy and offering, including its new ZIONICᵀᴹ brand for Fused Zirconia, which launched in February.
Imerys Science & Technology Director for Refractory Producers Christoph Wöhrmeyer contributed to technical papers on subjects including zirconia stabilization and Imerys’ MagArmour product for monolithics, and Imerys Customer Application Engineer Scot Graddick chaired six technical sessions on raw materials, steelmaking and ironmaking.
Representatives from Imerys talked about the company’s commitment to sustainability, and how the organization’s well-connected supply chain is helping customers overcome current obstacles and offer solutions for future challenges.
Chris Parr, Science & Technology Vice President for Refractories at Imerys, attended the event. “We help our customers to use Imerys minerals and materials in the best way in their products. We pride ourselves on putting science into the equation.”
“As a long-term supplier with highly experienced people in our team, we can help customers with the different challenges they will face.”
Embedding sustainability into a long-term product strategy
At UNITECR, Nancy Bunt, Corporate Social Responsibility Coordinator for Imerys’ refractories offering, reiterated the urgency with which refractory companies need to act. “At Imerys, sustainability is part of our business model,” says Nancy. “We incorporate it into everything we do."
“Sustainability will drive the industry forward, and we are ahead of the curve at Imerys. Because of our size, we can dedicate a lot of resources to a longer-term strategy of creating sustainable products and introducing sustainable technology in our mines, plants and laboratories, all to reduce our environmental footprint.”
Promoting innovation within refractory and ceramics
Chris Parr, who, in addition to his role at Imerys, is chairman of the Federation for International Refractory Research and Education (FIRE), presented a paper on how to attract and develop young talent. FIRE is a consortium of academic institutions and industrial partners that promotes refractory materials engineering within higher education.
“If the industry wants to be sustainable and provide sustainable refractory solutions, we need to demonstrate a clear path from education to innovation,” says Chris.
Josh Pelletier, Imerys’ Sales Director for Refractories in the Americas, also attended UNITECR. “Ceramic engineering is a niche that gets overlooked, unfortunately,” Josh commented. "In recent years at many universities, ceramics as a specialization has been absorbed into broader materials engineering courses – covering glass, metals, polymers and ceramics."
“People think of toilets and sinks, and don’t realize we deal in superconductors, lasers and space shuttles. We are an industry focused on the next generation of technology, space exploration and innovation. That’s what we need to promote to capture young engineers’ attention."
“Generation Z is now entering the workforce and is more passionate about the concept of sustainability than any generation before. In order to attract them into an essential but traditionally carbon-heavy industry, we must highlight the innovations we are constantly developing to lessen the impact of our operations on the world around us.”
Supporting and mentoring young engineers on a rewarding career path
Josh has been a member of ACerS – the American Ceramics Society – since he was a student and was awarded the fellow status in 2020.
In the past few years, the Society has launched a network for young professionals. Student ambassadors work with universities across the US and around the world to bolster engagement among young professionals and get them interested in the career opportunities available within ceramics.
Imerys and the ACerS network sponsored an event at UNITECR, which Josh helped plan, to connect undergraduates and young professionals with experienced mentors.
“At the event, students and people fresh out of university or four or five years into their career were able to reach out to people like me, Nancy and Chris,” says Josh. “We offered advice around setting future expectations, and where they could go in their career. Whether they want to be an R&D Director, work in a lab or get into sales or management, the opportunities are there."
“The way to engage young people at job fairs is to show them where they would start if they came to work for you, and the path that would take them to the career of their dreams."
“There really is a fast track in the refractory world because of the aging population in our ranks. You can start today as a college graduate and be C-suite management – at President or CEO level – in 15 years. The sky's the limit!”
Recognition for Imerys’ expertise in refractories
At UNITECR, Chris received the American Ceramic Society’s Theodore J. Planje St. Louis Refractories Award, which recognizes and honors distinguished achievements and contributions in the refractories field.
Chris has authored and co-authored more than 115 technical and scientific papers in the field of calcium aluminates and their applications.
Chris was presented with the award at UNITECR by Nancy, herself a recipient in 2018 – the first woman ever to receive it.
“As you go through your career, you absorb information shared by others,” Chris reflects. “I recognize the people who have been instrumental in influencing me, so it’s a logical step for me to give back – and I’ve done that by running FIRE for the past 10 years and encouraging young people into the industry.”
The diversity of the refractory industry continues to inspire Chris.
“It’s not just about math or chemicals, or engineering, or science – it’s all of those and more. We’re looking at bio-inspired materials. I came through the chemistry route, but it is an integrated discipline pulling on a lot of fundamental skills – and that’s what attracted me.”
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