A fabricator finds dramatic time and tool cost savings in an unusual place
Finding a solution
Alpha Granite & Tile in Austin, TX, has grown steadily since its opening in 2003, adding and diversifying machinery, materials and service offerings along the way, eventually earning the title “Accredited Natural Stone Company” from the Natural Stone Institute. They’ve expanded to deliver a range of custom residential and commercial stone surfaces, from wall cladding to kitchen countertops, in more than 150 colors of granite, marble, onyx, quartz, quartzite and ultra-compact sintered surfaces.
To keep up, Alpha Granite has invested in several advanced CNC machines, diminishing or altogether eliminating many of the laborious and time-consuming processes. Despite the technological advances, there was still a bottleneck that frustrated owners Denis and Sonia Phocas.
“Measuring tools in the stone industry was always a very laborious process,” explained Denis Phocas. “It’s archaic. You get wet, dirty and it takes a really long time. In reality, the process destroys tools because employees know the time and effort involved, so they tend to skip the necessary measuring intervals [ultimately cutting tool life roughly in half]. Dressing of the tools is also skipped, as this process needs to be done after a set amount of linear feet of work. In essence, the tools need to be measured and sharpened at set intervals to increase life.”
The traditional measuring process is manual. Measuring height and diameter to set up and inspect tools requires handheld instruments like calipers. Phocas explains how important accurate and sharp tools are to cutting stone profiles. Since each profile requires several passes by six or seven different tools, each dependent on the accuracy, and more delicate than the one before. In other words, if the first tool isn’t dialed in right, the profile shape will be deformed, tools wear faster and the hours spent preparing them are wasted.
“Finding the center of one tool is hard enough,” he said. “Finding the center in relation to six others is very difficult.”
Phocas had heard about tool presetters, essentially a powerful microscope with a high-resolution monitor and basic computing power. It allows for precise inspection and measurement of tool edges. The process is relatively new to the stone industry and mostly limited to larger fabricators. As he explored further, Phocas began to understand why — only the big guys could afford them. The presetters he saw from his distributers were big, expensive and, frankly, had more bells and whistles than a family-owned independent shop like Alpha Granite would need. Phocas recalled thinking, “It was such a major expense. Who needs to spend $60,000 on something you don’t need fully automated? There had to be a smaller solution.”
Phocas approached suppliers about entry-level options, but they continued pushing more expensive options. He got creative and found a metalworking supplier, Big Kaiser Precision Tooling in Hoffman Estates, IL, that might be able to help. The Speroni STP Essentia they offered featured a compact bench-top design, could work with any brand of router tools and handle the more complex tool profiles in stone cutting with ease. Most importantly, it was much less expensive than the other options he had found.
After working closely with a representative from Big Kaiser, even trying out an Essentia in his shop, Phocas was convinced and decided to purchase one. While there are significantly fewer types of tools used for profile cutting, this new capability and process would be an adjustment at first, starting with installation.
“I had never worked with one of these,” said Phocas. “It’s a precision tool. I wouldn’t call it daunting, but the process was interesting. We installed it in the workshop manager’s office because we wanted to keep it in a clean environment and because it’s got a computer hooked up to it. In the end, the installation process was pretty straightforward.”
To shrink the learning curve for his team, Phocas worked with Big Kaiser to develop a simple calibration manual. In just 18 pages, they were able to include step-by-step instructions for using the touchscreen system and measuring their 11 most common tools, from simple drillers to ogees.
“Once we got used to it, it was very easy,” said Phocas. “Our employees simply love the Essentia and now depend on it.”
The results have been undeniable. “The Essentia quickly tells you if a tool is out of shape,” explained Phocas. “I can prepare a set of tools in about 10 minutes, put them on the machine and start running. Whereas, with the old system it would take me anywhere between two to three hours, re-measuring and re-dressing while machines sat idle. We think our tool life has improved by 35 to 45 percent as well. It’s just phenomenal.”
Alpha Granite isn’t stopping there. In the near future, they’ll install software on their CNC routers that will precisely monitor the amount of linear feet each tool is working. This data will make tool recalibration even more streamlined. As things stand now, they have scheduled days for using the Essentia to recalibrate tools. With the new software, they’ll be able to recalibrate on-demand, so to speak, right when a tool has reached its manufacturer-recommended linear feet.
The addition of the Essentia has sparked dramatic process improvements. While presetters aren’t foreign to stonework, they aren’t all that common at fabrication shops like Alpha Granite. But if the results are any indication, other independent fabricators may want to get creative in their exploration of tool management options too.