Web Exclusive- Digital technology: The future of stone fabrication

December 16, 2008
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New technology and software available today can help fabricators track their full slab and remnant inventory. Each slab is digitally photographed and a barcode tag is applied, which stores slab information, including slab bundle, slab block, size of remnant, color and thickness.


Technology within the stone industry over the last five years has changed at lightening speed. In the 1990s, shops were sprouting up across the country with a bridge saw and possibly an edge machine. Today, the very few start-up shops entering the market are not starting with just a bridge saw -- they are entering the market with a fully automated, digital fabrication facility.

If you haven't embraced digital technology, you may be slipping behind the fast track of production. For some fabricators, it is hard to change a process that has made them money in the past. The past is history, though, and today, we are working in a totally different economic and competitive environment than we were just a few years ago.

So, how do you survive or thrive in this economic environment? Focus on reducing your production costs by embracing digital technology. Transforming your shop to a fully digital fabrication facility takes time, research, capital and extensive planning -- it is a mindset change and an entire process change. Here are some significant business strategy questions you need to ask yourself:

  • When is the right time to embrace digital technology?
  • If I don't embrace digital technology, where will my business be in the next five years?
  • Can I afford to make this investment, in both time and capital, based upon the current economic and competitive environment?

These are tough questions to answer, but are important to address for the short- and long-term future and vitality of your business.

Here's a "birds-eye" view of the digital fabrication facility and some points to consider before embracing this technology.

The visual display of laying out parts on the customers' pre-selected slabs can be saved as a jpg or bmp image, which can be easily e-mailed for approval.

Step 1: Inventory management

Increasing your stone yield or reducing your scrap is a huge opportunity for fabricators. Just a slight percentage improvement in yield could result in thousands of dollars in annual savings and bottom-line profits. New technology and software available on the market can help you track your full slab and remnant inventory. Each slab is digitally photographed and a barcode tag is applied. Barcode tags store slab information, including slab bundle, slab block, size of remnant, color and thickness, just to name a few. The tag is placed on the end of the slab for identification and is placed in a slab racking system. Rather than physically rummaging through your stoneyard looking for the right size of material, query the inventory database for remnants that meet your size and color criteria. The remnants are barcoded and filed in the inventory database. This software gives fabricators the ability to easily store and manage remnant pieces digitally without retaking a photo.

Slab photos can also be emailed as a jpg or bmp image for remote viewing by a customer or contractor. This is a very important feature for fabricators who may be servicing different markets because it allows customers to select their slabs electronically.

Fabricators who have a main fabrication facility (hub) with satellite offices (spoke) will benefit from this technology as well. Information transfer via digital templates and photo inventory allow each spoke to access the material inventory at the hub. Electronically rendering the countertops is an effective sales tool as well. No longer will the need to transport stick templates interfere with the production process, and lead-times for customers will shrink.

Once a customer approves the layout, the .dxf file can be sent directly to the sawing station.

Step 2: Digital templating

Once the slab has been selected from inventory, the templating crew is sent out into the field for measurement. Utilizing a digital templating system is the critical step in the digital fabrication process and sometimes the hardest process to accept. Your hard templating system (luan strips, plastic, wood, etc.) has worked for you for years, but so did your bridge saw and hand tools.

The common thread of a fully digital fabrication facility begins with a .dxf file. The majority of digital templating systems available on the market will produce a .dxf file, which is a standard CAD file used in any CAD system. In general, the raw templating file needs some clean-up before it can be uploaded to your machines for processing. This clean-up can happen either within some of the digital templating systems or with an additional CAD software. Some other benefits of these systems may include the ability to identify an edge profile detail on each piece with layering capabilities and estimating software, allowing for an instant proposal to the customer.

After the sawing station, the parts are moved to the edger or CNC router station for final processing.

Step 3: Part layout and customer approval

Now that the parts have been touched up and are ready for processing, we can move on to laying out our parts on the customers' pre-selected slabs. This virtual display can also be saved as a jpg or bmp image, which can be easily e-mailed for approval. This leads us into a critical money saving step for many digital shops -- customer sign-off. This is a great feature of digital technology because you are setting the expectation of what the kitchen will look like completed, including seam placement, stone flow, etc. This eliminates re-work and any anxiety felt by the homeowner.

Step 4: Sawing station

Once the customer approves the layout, the .dxf file can be sent directly to your sawing station. A traditional shop incorporating a bridge saw will apply the .dxf to a plotter and cut out a Mylar template, allowing the sawyer to determine the correct layout of the job. Or, those that have a laser layout station will be able to project the .dxf images on the slab and mark them for the bridge saw.

Fabricators that have implemented CNC saw or saw/waterjet technology have a simpler task at hand. They can download the .dxf to the programming software and have the blade and waterjet cuts nested in the program manually or automatically for the most efficient use of material. Once this is accomplished, they will generate a work order containing a barcode and overview of the job out to the shop floor for processing. The CNC operator then scans the barcode, which loads the job into the CNC, loads the slab onto the CNC and locates the slab in the correct position on the table and hits the cycle start button on the saw. Minutes later, the slab is fully processed and ready to be edged.

Step 5: Edging station

After the sawing station, the parts are moved to the edger or CNC router station for final processing. Depending on your philosophy, you may have acquired a sawjet to take advantage of the material yield and nesting capabilities and determined that it was fiscally beneficial to remain labor intensive in the edging department, since the radii and sink/faucet holes can be processed at the sawing station with a sawjet prior to arriving in the hands of your skilled labor force. This method has been accepted by a number of fabricators over the last few years as an entry-level step to the digital arena.

As the business grows, cash becomes available or the business philosophy changes, the CNC router is added to the mix, allowing higher, more efficient and consistent production than previously experienced. With the advent of UHS "high speed" tooling, the production speeds of the CNC router can be increased dramatically over "classic" tooling and still maintain a substantial tool life. The benefits of the CNC router include higher production speeds, more consistent and higher quality edge detail, less human intervention, fewer fabrication errors and more free time for the labor force to focus on quality.

The future of fabrication

The benefits of becoming a fully digital shop are numerous:

  • Electronic templates can be e-mailed from the field, eliminating the need for a gas guzzling truck and expediting the transfer of information back to the shop.
  • Increase yield through material savings utilizing CNC saw/waterjet software and component performance results in significant savings.
  • Increase in production speed utilizing a CNC router with "high speed" tooling and raw material with radii and sink holes already produced (minimizing mill bit use).
  • Reduction in install times due to more accurate template with accurately scribed walls and tight notches and bump outs.
There are two different approaches to becoming a fully digital shop. One strategy is to "jump in with both feet," transforming your shop in a single step. Another strategy is to gradually transform your facility, one step at a time. There are pro's and con's to both strategies. Evaluate your current processes to determine which strategy will work best for you. In today's environment, it is not about whether to adopt this technology, it is a question of how and when you adopt this technology to survive and thrive in the world of fabrication.

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