The New Stone Age: Stone Industry evolution
“How did man discover the beauty hidden in stone? Probably curiosity. Someone saw unusual markings on an exposed ledge of rock. Breaking a piece off, smoothing it and cleaning it, rubbing it with pumice and wetting it revealed colours, veining, textures and graining … How long has man used stone to symbolise permanence? Who knows? To work with stone is to work with the basic rhythms of the earth.”
Robert Hund, Marble Institute of America
For millennia, civilisations have crafted stone to provide habitats, initially perhaps for safety and refuge and then, since the first of the great western civilisations, for its enduring beauty and status. By the time of the Roman Empire, stone had become the must have material for civic building prowess, as Emperor Caesar Augustus famously boasted: “I found Rome a city of brick, and left it a city of marble”
However, up until the advent of the 21st century the skills used to achieve the permanent architecture of stone changed little. Whilst transportation methods may have altered significantly, from the Egyptian pulley system, through horse and cart in the agricultural age, to the steam powered engines of the industrial revolution, the cutting and shaping of stone itself was performed using principally only a mallet, bolster and chisel.
Where then does the digital revolution and the onset of the Internet-of-Things leave stone craftsmanship? The answer is that like in most industries, technological advances in manufacturing equipment and processes have advanced significantly and will continue to do so. The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) forecast that by 2020, more than 1.7 million new industrial robots will be installed in factories internationally. As some of these machines are installed in stone factories does this mean that true masonry craftsmanship will be lost forever as autonomous machines take over? We suspect not, at least not any time soon.
At J. Rotherham, we have seen incredible opportunities to capitalise on new technologies as an aid to traditional craftsmanship skills and we define the benefits in four key areas: Service, Price, Quality and Responsibility.
The synchronisation of machines and systems within the Internet-of-Things (i.e. machines automatically talking to one another) is leading to ever improved standards of service. In the granite worktops industry, up until c. 2010 nearly all kitchens required a hard board template (accurate measurement of the worktop pieces required to fit on top of the cabinets). These templates would have to be loaded into a van and sent back to the factory to be digitally copied and processed ready for production.
The development of Digital Laser Template machines has had a profound effect on improving service levels, both through reduced lead times due to the instant digital transfer of the template from site to the factory, and by reducing error rates through only having one file that transfers directly to the production machines.
Technology is evolving rapidly within the stone industry. Whilst computer-numerically-controlled (CNC) machines were a rarity up until the 1990s (J. Rotherham installed the very first stone working CNC machine in the UK in 1988 and the world’s first robotic line for kitchen worktop production in 2017), the type and availability of specialist machines to cope with any number of specific tasks has grown exponentially.
As recently as the 1970s slabs of granite would be cut using a 2 person hand held saw, one person on each end required to laboriously cut in tandem with the other person, a process that could take over 20 minutes to cut a single linear metre of material. Modern CNC saw technology cuts solid 30mm stone slab at approximately 3 linear metres a minute – a 60 fold increase in productivity.
A synergy is evolving between man and machine, to the extent that quality levels are increased substantially in ensuring consistency and reliability of the finished products. Digital tool measuring devices accurately calibrate the various tools required to perform the cutting and polishing processes ensuring that the machine and tool work to exact tolerances to support a higher standard of finish. The flexibility of the latest generation of CNC machines allows the tools to oscillate to help remove any unwanted routeing lines in the material that the customer would not want to see with the naked eye.
When it comes to safety, one of the biggest advances in upcoming years will be using handling robots for stone manufacture. Transporting large quantities of heavy materials around the factory could be a somewhat strenuous and potentially dangerous task for the original muscle power involved. Whilst manual lifting equipment has improved the process over recent years, robotic handling machines will become increasingly popular as they handle with ease the large and heavy pieces of stone in a controlled and efficient fashion.
Many debates continue around the increased use of robotics and automation and where society might end up as a result. According to The Manufacturer, a recent survey stated that, “82.9% of industry professionals believe there should be an increased focus on human factors at the initial design stage to encourage the interaction with and acceptance of robotics, and 78.9% feel more should be done to promote the benefits of automation and encourage acceptance.”
It is easy to see the consumer benefits with products such as Quartz and Granite worktops, that once only affordable to the elite few, are now available for the wider consumer market. And this is not where the benefits will stop for the consumer.
Advancements are aiding every part of the customer journey from design, through manufacture to installation. Augmented or Virtual Reality is fast becoming a popular tool in the design industry, allowing the consumer to get ever improving visuals of their new kitchen before they’ve purchased. In-showroom AR tools assist the designer and customers to achieve informed buying decisions.
In addition to this, systems from showroom through to factory are becoming increasingly integrated. This means further down the customer journey in production, errors relating to early design faults or miscommunication are reduced significantly.
From our unique experience as a manufacturer, technology in the stone industry has been an unquestionable force for positive change. It is generally pleasing that the people involved in the stone manufacture industry are also seeing benefits, with a broader range of skilled jobs being created because of technological advancement.
There is no escaping that the workforce of tomorrow will look very different to the one of today. The reality is that many of the more routine, less skilled and laborious jobs are the ones that are automated first. Insight from Deloitte states, while technology has potentially contributed to the loss of over 80,000 lower skilled jobs, there is equally strong evidence to suggest that it has helped create nearly 3.5million new higher skilled jobs in its place.
A good way to picture modern technology in the stone trade is to think of the machine as a mechanical assistant to the human master. Much the same way as the apprentice would be an assistant to the master artist. More skilled roles such as programming and engineering will still support the work of the masons in creating products of timeless beauty and design.