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Brick prices fall as new machine changes supply and quality

Yesterday, in a Kandal Province brick factory.
Yesterday, in a Kandal Province brick factory. Kali Kotoski

Brick prices fall as new machine changes supply and quality

As the construction sector in Cambodia grows, the demand for construction materials has steadily increased from year to year, especially the demand for bricks in home construction. Yet despite the increase in demand, the price for bricks has fallen sharply compared to 2014 due in part to the increase of production and lower cost of manufacturing as techniques begin to modernize, said brick kiln owners.

Preab Koy, owner of a brick kiln in the Mukh Kompul District of Kandal Province, said brick prices have fallen to $280 to $300 per 1,000 bricks compared to last year at this time when the price was $320 to $330.

While Koy still uses the labour intensive hydraulic manual machine, which mixes molds and cuts the unfired clay into rectangular blocks, he said that many other brick manufacturers have started to use automated machines to boost production while replacing the labour shortage within the industry.

“With the increase of demand for bricks, the price should have increased as well. However, because more bricks were produced with [automatic] machines, the price decreased instead,” he said.

Whereas bricks used to take between 8 to 10 days to make using outdated methods, modern machinery has reduced the process to only one day, he explained.

While he claimed that he could keep up with increasing levels of demand, producing 500,000 to 600,000 bricks per month, he worried about his ability to remain competitive in the future without a sizeable investment in machinery if prices continue to fall.

Know your bricks

There are no brick standards in Cambodia. This means that the quality for brick varies depending on producers know-how, brick ingredients and quality control.

To make sure you know howto tell the difference between a good brick and a bad brick and ask the right questions when you buy them, just bear these in mind:

• Most bricks are made from clay or clay-soil mixtures.

• One of the most important factors to produce high quality bricks is the proper mixture of clay, soil and water.

• Automatic machines for brick production were introduced to Cambodia from Vietnam around 2013.

• Automatic machines have the capacity to mix and compress bricks, making the bricks look nicer

• Nice looking or not: the quality of the brick depends heavily on how the brick is burnt in the last stage of production.

• Areas rich in mud and clay usually produce the highest quality bricks.

• Cambodian methods of brick productions come from geological studies done in Vietnam.

• Brick production is highest during the dry season and lowest during rainy season.

• Clay bricks are said to have higher quality than cement bricks are.

• Using quality clay and soil produce lighter bricks, which are better for construction than substandard clay or soil that produce heavier bricks.

Chhean Suyheang, director of the Brick Kiln Association in Kandal Province, said that before the introduction of machinery, one brick kiln needed an average of five manual machines and 15 to 20 workers to produce approximately 25,000 bricks per day, while the newer diesel and electrical powered machines can pump out 8,000 bricks per hour with only ten workers.

“When more supplies are made, the price of brick always falls, but it is vice-versa when fewer bricks are produced,” he said, noting the annual production cycle that booms during the dry season and diminishes during the rainy season as construction levels taper off.

According to him, within Kandal province, there are 53 brick kilns trying to supply an estimated two million bricks needed by Phnom Penh this year. He estimated the cost of the automatic brick machines runs between $20,000 to $30,000 per unit depending on the size and capabilities of the production plant and that the investment was beneficial in the long run when forecasting a robust future demand.

Along with the increase of production, and un-phased with the drop in prices, Suyheang said that “the brick quality is better when compared to previous methods” of production.

However, Sar Sarn, manager of Ir Seng Hong Brick Company, was hesitant to conclude that increased levels of production and machinery naturally lead to a better product.

“The machine just helps the mixture of the materials and the compression of the brick to make them look nice, but in the end, it depends on the people who [fire] them,” he said.

He described that besides proper firing techniques, the most important factor in brick production is using the proper mixture of clay, soil and water to produce high quality bricks.

Siev Leang, owner of Ponleu Preah Atit Brick Kiln, said that her brick kiln in Kandal Province has decreased production due to dropping prices for bricks despite the growing demand. She claimed that this was because it has become more difficult to find quality clay and excavated dirt.

“After the locality was included as part of Phnom Penh, property prices increased, which made excavated dirt prices increase as well, and it was hard to make profit,” she said.

Meanwhile, as the price of bricks fell, the primary fuel for the firing process, wood, has soared, she said. According to her, wood is currently priced at $23 per cubic metre and has been a contributing factor in her decrease in production and quality.

While certain suppliers have not been able to boost production levels, others who have invested in modern processes have been able to mitigate the fall in prices.

Cheav La, a supervisor at a local brick kiln, explained that with the use of machinery while replacing wood with rice husks that only cost $90 per truckload, the drop in brick prices has not affected the company’s bottom line.

The ‘new’ brick machine from Vietnam. This $20,000-$30,000 investment can multiply the a manufacturers output using less labour.
The ‘new’ brick machine from Vietnam. This $20,000-$30,000 investment can multiply the a manufacturers output using less labour. Kali Kotoski

While Kandal Province has been a dominate player in brick manufacturing due to its rich soil, all bricks are not created equal, and when production levels and quality don’t meet demand, construction companies rely on the importation of materials, Suyheang explained.

While some local brick manufacturers believe that they are equipped to handle local demand through mechanized production, Meng Chamreun, the engineer assigned to the Olympic City Project said that increased production and lower costs doesn’t always benefit the construction industry.

He noted that while the project always tried to use domestic bricks, it was not always possible and that the company has had to import materials from neighboring countries due to low quality in Cambodia.

“If the project were to solely rely on domestic bricks that were substandard, it would negatively affect the quality of construction,” he said. He noted that the supply for quality bricks was never a problem three to four-years-ago.

“But this year quality supplies are limited due to the growth in the construction sector,” he said.

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