Report from Europe: State-of-the-art limestone facility rises in France
September 1, 2006
Located in the heart of the limestone-quarrying region of Burgundy, France, Atelier Pierre De Bourgogne began production at its state-of-the-art fabrication facility in December 2005. And to ensure the long-term success of this endeavor, it invested in the latest generation of stoneworking technology.
The factory is co-owned by Polystone, a stone importing company based in Oakland, CA. â€œWe wanted a reliable supplier of high-quality French limestone products for the projects we work on with architects in the U.S.,â€ explained Mario Levak, one of the owners of Polystone. â€œSince we had trouble finding consistent service and supply, we decided to become our own supplier.â€ Levak and his partner, Franck Pecceu, have owned and operated Polystone since August 2000.
The other owner of Atelier Pierre De Bourgogne, Fabrice Descombes, had a different reason for wanting to build the factory with Polystone. Descombes owned a stone restoration company with his uncle, Franco Scandola, which specialized in restoring historical stone monuments, and he wanted to move on from that business and become more involved in the production of stone. This change would also help Descombes to better and more efficiently utilize the limestone quarry he owned.
Levak and Pecceu had a working relationship with Descombes, and together they decided to jointly invest in a factory that could expand this relationship and complete the vertical integration they all desired. â€œWe realized very early on that the stone market was rapidly changing, and that it was important to evolve from Polystone's role of stone broker and integrate both ends of the stone chain - stone manufacturing as well as stone installation,â€ said Levak.
The establishment of a fabrication plant also fit well with the owners' stone contracting business. â€œWe had already started a stone installation company, Omnistone Masonry, Inc., with an experienced third partner, and now that Polystone is a shareholder in Atelier Pierre de Bourgogne, we can control all steps of the process - from quality control to production scheduling and communication,â€ explained Pecceu. â€œAll of this enhances and increases our level of service and enables us to offer better pricing.â€
A well-planned spaceWalking through the factory, visitors can immediately see that the owners had a very specific plan and a very targeted audience. The factory is mainly set up to manufacture tiles and panels (expected to account for approximately 90% of their production) with a maximum size of 24 x 36 inches (610 x 914 mm) and a minimum of 8 x 8 inches (200 x 200 mm). The maximum thickness is 1 Â½ inches, and the minimum is 3/8 inch on most limestone varieties. One material they offer, RoquemaillÃ¨re Gris, a gray and blue limestone from NÃ®mes, is offered with a minimum thickness of Â¼ inch (7 mm). The company also handles cut-to-size orders, odd-sized slabs and some cubic products.
The production process begins with a Bidesimpianti diamond wire saw, which is used to trim the tops of the blocks for further cutting. The CNC diamond wire saw is also used for profiling cornices and other basic cubic products and can cut thick slabs as well as small quantities of Â¾-inch (2 cm) slabs. For some of the local, softer limestones, it can cut 3.2 meters per hour and with the harder limestones, the rate is 2.2 meters per hour. In addition to the saw's versatility in the production process, it also causes less stress on the stone, an important factor when working with limestones from Burgundy.
Other than the diamond wire saw, all of the remaining equipment was supplied by Simec of Italy. From the wire saw, located outside, the blocks move inside to the Simec NT2 2m Super Block Cutter, which is equipped with a customized 260 KW engine for hard stone because the factory plans to cut many hard stones as well as the local limestones, which are generally softer. Limestones from northern Burgundy, known as Chatillonais Stones, are often medium to hard. The Simec blockcutter has two blades and cuts in two steps: the two vertical blades cut down up to 2 feet in one pass, and then a horizontal blade cuts the bottom of the pass. The resulting pieces have a maximum thickness of 3 inches.
Tiles and panels are fabricated on Simec's completely automated tile production line, which was chosen by the company because they felt â€œit is the best robotic tile production line available,â€ and because the owners had a long-standing relationship with Simec's representative for France. â€œWe knew we could work with Simec and trusted their agent very much, and he helped ensure that the machines were suited to our needs,â€ said Descombes.
The small slabs or panels are automatically loaded from the block cutter onto the tile line using robot-controlled vacuum lifters. They are then trimmed, and the resulting waste is automatically removed from the line. The trimmed pieces then go directly to the polishing line (suitable for limestone and marble) and are then cut into tiles and squared. The edge is then finished (their most common offerings are a broken edge, for the Old World look and feel, and a polished bevel) and the finished pieces go through a drying machine.
The finishes currently being offered by Atelier Pierre De Bourgogne are honed, polished, antiqued (brushed) and bushhammered.
â€œBecause of the flexibility of the line, it only takes about five minutes to change either dimension of the strips,â€ said Levak, who added that reconfiguring the line for different finishes and/or sizes takes less than 15 minutes, which offers flexibility and minimal down time. Another result of the fully automated line is the need for fewer workers. The company employs only five workers in the factory. Three people work on the production line, watching to ensure quality is consistent and that no problems arise on the line. One person is responsible for loading blocks onto the block cutter, and the last person's job is to watch over the entire process.
Water recycling was an important consideration for Atelier Pierre De Bourgogne, and it invested in a water treatment system and compressor from Omec of Italy. The company uses approximately 600 liters of water per minute and loses about 5%. All water is collected in a well and is then sent into a tower in which the sediment and mud settle to the bottom. After settling, the mud and sediment are subsequently compacted at a rate of 200 kilograms per square centimeter (2,845 psi), and it is then collected for use in the local farming industry to help balance the pH level of the soil. Supplemental water needed for the factory is rainwater collected from their roof.
The factory occupies 16,000 square feet of covered area and sits on 6 acres of land, including storage space. It is currently capable of producing three containers per week while operating one shift, and 60% of production is targeted to the U.S. Of the remaining production, 30% is aimed toward the European market and 10% to Australia and New Zealand.
Slab production is sub-contracted to an outside company that also processes some of the more intricate three-dimensional work that cannot be manufactured at the new factory. â€œWe have very good working relationships with other stone companies in the area, so it's easy for us to utilize their capabilities,â€ said Descombes.
The company's primary market will be importers and the architectural community, mainly for architectural project work.
Stone materialsDescombes owns one quarry for Darcy limestone, which is located across the road from the factory, and the plant is cutting approximately six different materials, mostly from Burgundy. The Darcy quarry is operated like the majority of quarries in Burgundy, which are different than most quarries in the world. The company extracts only about 500 cubic meters at a time for nearly two months, and then waits until it needs more material before quarrying again. Usually this occurs when they have approximately 100 cubic meters of material left. Most of the quarries in the area are similar in that they are small quarries, and the owners sub-contract the actual quarry operations. This means that they do not own the quarrying equipment, and instead have the quarry operators bring their machinery in and handle the excavation process. This process includes mainly horizontal quarrying; they do not go very deep into the quarry because most of the best material is near the top. Additionally, all quarry owners are required to fill in the quarry and restore the land back to its original agricultural use as they move to a new area.
Recently, Atelier Pierre De Bourgogne signed an exclusive distribution agreement with Guillaume Allier, owner of the RoquemaillÃ¨re quarry, and this agreement is particularly important for Polystone because RoquemaillÃ¨re Gris is well suited for the American market. According to Levak, the stone is attractive to distributors because of its consistency over time, its availability in very large quantities and large slabs and its relatively moderate price. â€œWe can offer better pricing because we retrieve larger blocks and thus larger pieces can be cut, offering maximum production efficiency at the factory.â€ The extraction of RoquemaillÃ¨re Gris is unique in that the waste from quarrying is extremely low, estimated at 15%.
For architects and designers, RoquemaillÃ¨re Gris is appealing because it yields large pieces for cut-to-size projects with good overall color consistency. The owners point out that the material's durability can be traced in history to when it was quarried and utilized by the Romans in their construction of historic buildings - some of which are still standing today (the most famous example is the Roman Arena in NÃ®mes). â€œThe stone's gray color makes it very fashionable with minimalist designs,â€ said Pecceu.
In addition to limestone varieties, Atelier Pierre De Bourgogne processes a marble, Bleu de Savoie, which is popular on the East Coast of the U.S. as well as in Asia. This quarry site is owned by Yelmini Artaud, a partner company.
Since the factory's opening, demand for material has grown such that they are now operating two shifts. This increased production is important to Polystone, according to Levak and Pecceu, because it is critical that all customer demand is met promptly. â€œAll of our hard work in establishing our business in the U.S. will pay off well if we continue to concentrate on servicing our clients with prompt delivery and consistent, dependable quality of French materials,â€ Levak said. â€œOur factory will now help us control our own destiny in reaching these goals.â€ To celebrate the opening of the new factory, Atelier Pierre De Bourgogne hosted a Grand Opening ceremony that was attended by Stone World Magazine as well as a contingent of European stone industry professionals and local officials.