By Matteo Berlenga and Toby Sterling
CITTA DI CASTELLO, Italy/AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Factories in Europe's energy-intensive ceramics industry are changing shift patterns and upgrading their furnaces as companies seek to survive an eye-watering rise in costs.
In central Italy, workers at the small 'Ceramiche Noi' factory, which makes patterned plates, bowls and other stoneware, are having to get used to 6 a.m. starts to cut costs. The firm's energy bill soared by 1,000% over the past year.
Bringing forward the start time by three hours allows the plant in the Umbrian town of Citta di Castello to tap into cheaper off-peak energy tariffs and operate when it is cooler.
"In the first hours of the day temperatures are lower and we can therefore avoid turning on the fans, which are always on during the day so we can use energy when it is cheaper," said 'Ceramiche Noi' commercial manager, Lorenzo Giornelli.
The change illustrates how energy-intensive businesses across Europe are adapting their operations to avoid being crippled by surging energy bills following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
"Bills have risen by 1,000%," said Giornelli, brandishing a monthly gas statement for 127,000 euros ($126,000), compared with one for 18,000 euros from last summer even though he used a little less this year.
In the Netherlands, the company behind the famous "Delft Blue" pottery that portrays windmills and typical Dutch landscapes, intends to replace one of its three main gas-fired ovens this year with an electric alternative.
"Koninklijke Porceleyne Fles", or Royal Delft as it is better known abroad, will also be turning down the heating this winter in its Delft factory where artists still paint many pieces by hand.
It is also making more careful use of its ovens to fire as many pieces at a time as possible.
CEO Henk Schouten said the company would like to replace all three ovens, but as each represents an upfront investment of 100,000 euros, it will phase them out gradually.
Higher prices were hurting the company's bottom line, but electricity costs are also painful at current levels, he said.
The situation is not make or break for a company which has been in operation since 1653, he said, but added: "I would like to have it (the money) in our profits and not in the costs."
For some companies in the supply chain, the situation is however becoming unsustainable.
Azuliber, one of Spain's main producers of atomised clay, was forced to halt parts of its output this week and send 117 workers home after gas prices became "totally unaffordable", the company said in a statement.
Atomising clay is a key step in the production of ceramic tiles.
Azuliber, part of Spanish tilemaker Pamesa Group, said the cost of atomising a tonne of clay had increased more than 1,000% in the last year and that little help had been offered to industry.
($1 = 1.0047 euros)
(Additional reporting by Christina Thykjaer in Madrid; Writing by Keith Weir; Editing by Matt Scuffham and Andrew Heavens)