How much automation is too much? Today some manufacturers recommend linking all computer-controlled machines via one central main frame in the belief that it is a more cost-effective, reliable approach to programming and running a modern stone processing operation. This approach calls for a totally automated system with integrated roller systems, storage and retrieval systems, robotics and proprietary software, potentially costing $2 million or more. Granted, it lends itself to automated production in which a shop is producing the same quality, same piece and the same material over and over. But realistically, each kitchen is unique. Furthermore, each part of a kitchen is unique.
Unfortunately, the initial expense of these systems typically takes a long time to recover. In addition, with such complex systems there is the danger of losing production for an extended period if the central computer system fails at any point in the network, shutting everything down. Today's technology is often not advanced or reliable enough to provide a fail-safe integrated central control system, and very few fabricating shops need that level of sophistication. These systems could leave shop owners virtually paralyzed because of their complexity to both operate and troubleshoot when problems occur. What is needed is a simpler system that everybody understands and knows how to operate and maintain — one that has flexibility built into it.
A "Vertical Integration" system approach can provide the benefit of automation, but without the technological complexity and huge expense. It is akin to an automotive assembly plant of the '70s or like today's Corvette assembly plant in Bowling Green, Ky. — semiautomated.
This efficient, logical, production-line vertical integration concept has proven to increase productivity in numerous installations, typically by more than 20 percent. Some shops are realizing ROI gains of 40 to 50 percent simply by redesigning the layout of the shop to increase its efficiency and take full advantage of automated equipment.
Vertical integration processors have planned their production areas to maximize the smooth flow of material through each stage of the production process so it progresses logically and virtually seamlessly from one stage to the next.
The old way of setting up a granite or stone processing shop was often to simply place equipment in any available open space with no thought given to material flow. Usually, the material slab would be loaded onto the bridge saw for initial shaping, cut to size, then unloaded from the same side and transferred to the next operation for edging, profiling, polishing, etc., wherever the next processing operation was located in the shop.
The new thinking is to position the equipment to facilitate material handling from one operation to the next: loading material slabs at the front of the bridge saw, unloading at the back and continuing the flow through to the edging equipment, CNC machine, polishing equipment, hand finishing, final inspection and then out the door.
Each job is custom-made in the sense that it's being fabricated to a unique set of specifications, but the processes are all basically the same — only the size, shape, edge and cutout details are different. So there is really not that much variation from one job to the next, making this new production line approach that much more practical and efficient.
Larger shops operating more than one production line have also instituted a "team concept" similar to those employed in highly automated factories of many other industries. In the case of stone-cutting facilities, the production lines are operated by a dedicated team of operators trained to run each processing machine in their respective line.