Considering automated application for stone sealers

August 1, 2007
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With all the high-tech advancements in stone fabrication equipment today -- from high-pressure waterjet cutting equipment with accuracy tolerances less than 0.2 mm to advanced CNC machining centers -- it seems as though we may have reached the glass ceiling in high-tech automation in our industry. But as I always find in the stone business, if we look hard enough, we’ll always seem to find just one more area of the process we didn’t think of automating before, and alas, technology comes to our rescue.
The latest “process-simplification” initiative I’m involved in -- as far as developing new technologies -- is automated sealing of natural stone materials.
Hopefully, by sharing my particular insight gained through this engineering endeavor, I can convey to you a tip or two that might help you prevent a potential cost catastrophe, unhappy client, or even save you some money and help improve your overall quality program in the process.
One of the biggest challenges today is making certain our finished production isn’t compromised by the inadequate or substandard application of stone-care products -- namely sealers.
The myriad of stone care products available today -- and the high-tech chemistry used for introducing a protectant to the stone -- is mind boggling to say the least. Most of us have been led into a mandatory working knowledge of Chemistry 101 to be able to understand the differences in these new products and how they work. Yet, with all of these technological breakthroughs, all sealers are subject to the same malfunction -- product application, methodology and reliability.
No matter which of these products you decide is best suited to your company’s stone quality program, we all put our trust and reputations on the people applying the sealer as part of the final installation procedure. In essence, the job depends on their consistency and reliability to properly apply the product(s) according to the manufacturer’s specifications.
We all know human beings cut corners when time is squeezed, and it’s usually the final sealing-and-buff process that suffers exposure to the fallout of the shortcuts. The ensuing scenario can then involve a stain, hazing or discoloration of the final stone product after your worker leaves the customer’s house.
How do we protect our finished products to the point that we are confident in every piece of stone that is installed? The answer lies in automation.

Automation is key

With today’s advancements in shop automation and process flow, we’ve streamlined the production steps necessary for fabrication to levels never before imagined. Most of these technologies used in today’s stone shops are simply adaptations of other manufacturing or application processes. Even slab handling and slab layout have become automated. So with this being said, why would we subject ourselves to the costly risks posed by inconsistent application methods of sealers?
Creating and developing automated application methods of these chemicals as part of your shop automation is the easiest and most economical means of permanently correcting the risks posed by faulty application at install.
Where in your process does the opportunity to apply the sealer to the entire slab become most advantageous? How do you safely apply your specified product to the material, without exposing your employees to unnecessary risk or hazards? How can you apply the product as specified without wasting half of it and doubling the material and cost used in the process? The correct answers to these questions must be found and tested before you can begin devising the methodology that best fits your production process.
Tools commonly found today that could be utilized in a hybrid scenario include power-feed rollers, piston-sprayer application equipment and charged ion atomization -- just to name a few. Utilizing a tank and pump under the application area(s) would allow you to maximize the sealer coverage and usage, eliminating the 40 to 60% of product thrown in the trash with towels or rags currently used for application.

Understanding
chemical technology

To understand which of the aforementioned technologies makes the most sense for your particular operation, you need to identify which chemical technology you’ll choose for your operation. Solvent-based, water-based and alcohol-based sealers are the most popular and readily available products offered today, and which one you choose has legal ramifications as well as desired result expectations that must be addressed.
Does the state(s) in which you install stone have new VOC regulations in place that prohibit the use of certain solvent-based sealers? Are you considering the use of water-based sealers/impregnators, and if so, will you have to use different products based on stone type being treated?
I know this all sounds far too complex for such a menial task as applying a topical sealer, but just take a peek at any stone industry information source(s) or forum out there and see how new environmental laws in the U.S. are restricting the use of some of yesterday’s solvent-based sealers, and the ease of use and superior protection they offered.
It is critical to dedicate sufficient time researching all these different product classes and the related use, application methods and safety hazards that are applicable to each one. Identify which one fits your operational ability, what level of protection it provides, the cost of the product and what benefit your company’s product warranty may get from the manufacturer’s warranty.

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