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TIME IS PRECIOUS

raport engOur customers are more and more aware of their expectations regarding functionality, quality and aesthetics. They are interested in top quality products. Stone meets this requirement. But both consumers and contractors are not happy to hear that they will have to bear the costs which are typical of handicrafts.

Is stone industry facing an inevitable decision to implement ideas of the fourth industrial revolution? Industry 4.0 – a term coined for the needs of digitalisation and automation of production has already found an ally in government. According to the Smart Industry 2017 study, which was carried out by the Ministry of Development along with Siemens company, Polish companies are relatively closed to external information and cooperation and reactive towards technological changes.  

Automation of stone processing plants is just a matter of time because it can be associated with mass production. The situation is different among craftsmen. Some of them are wrong thinking that automation of small plants is not cost-effective because they produce short-line and unique goods. They are wrong when we take a look at the situation of German craft. The German Confederation of Skilled Craft (ZDH) has recently conducted a study on the role of digitalisation. We need to know that this sector is very diverse: a million of companies hire around 5.3 million workers, and a half of the companies have less than 5 employees. There are as many as 150 various craft professions in Germany. Their representatives say that the most most beneficial for them will be optimisation of storage and distribution of goods, time savings and more flexible work organisation. A fourth of all the companies – from micro-companies to small and medium enterprises – are now using digital solutions such as tracking systems in warehouse management, 3D printers and scanners, preventive maintenance technologies, robots or … drones. Specialist software to manage data and customers’ projects are used by nearly a half of the companies. 
Is anybody suggesting low efficiency of stone production in Poland? It is not possible to improve something we have no data about. What is then the contemporary image of stone craft?  

POLE VAULT

It is not particularly difficult to prove that our branch faced revolutionary changes in the last two decades.  

- When we launched mass production of wire saws in 2005, the market was full of 3000 mm cutting disc saws, but in 2007 the number of sold wire saws and 3000 mm cutting disc saws was more or less the same. Later the ratio was 3 to 2 to the advantage of diamond wire machines and in 2009 6 to 1. We have been producing only diamond wires for a few years now – says Katarzyna Szłapa from ZPU PROMASZ, who confirms that her company decided to produce cheaper to use and more precise saws.  

All market participants – producers of semi-products and stone goods – are beneficiaries of the unprecedented technological progress. Besides, we have to mention an important role of EU funds. Thanks to them, family stone companies in Poland have as modern CNC machines as their counterparts in Europe. Another thing is that machines owned by stonemasons who specialise in “inside construction” are far more modern than those that belong to stonemasons who deal with road construction or tombstones. The situation of exploiting the potential of machines looks a little bit worse.  

Let us have a look at an interesting comment on this by a manufacturer … of process water purification systems.

- When comparing our stone industry customers from the domestic market with our neighbouring countries’ markets like the Czech Republic, Lithuania or Latvia, we can clearly see that our Polish companies are much more modern and have more developed machinery stocks, says Grzegorz Górski from Silkam company.

- But when we compare stone industry with related industries, machinery stocks are, in my opinion, especially in glass companies, much more modern than in stone plants. This is obviously true when we speak about industrial plants, not small glass firms.

As a general rule, the largest spare production capacity lies in small companies rather than in big players (for example in stone processing plants). It is true, as it will be easier for a narrowly specialized manufacturer to put machines in a process line. Cutting – machining – manual processing of the final product. Industrial waste? Most companies did not have any technical or financial problem with disposal of sludge from horizontal settling tanks 10 or 15 years ago. The situation, however, has changed. What we have now is the so-called TCO –  Total Cost of Ownership. After all, stone processing needs hectolitres of water and its quality is of great importance to the quality of the product, process speed and … life of machines and tools.  

- Twenty years ago Lower Silesian stonemasons (and there are many of them) were not interested in treatment plants at all because they found them completely useless. Now they know how useful or even necessary they are. Most companies (from all industries) are now investing in water treatment plants. They are doing it not from ecological reasons but from financial ones. Developing companies which are investing in modern, efficient and automatic machines understand that process water management constitutes an important element in company’s total operating costs. Every downtime for cleaning settling tanks and changing water means engaging workers in additional work – adds Grzegorz Górski.

We have already mentioned the technological advantage of glass industry. Strict quality standards for products make glass companies count every penny and do their best to use their machinery stock to the fullest. The comment from a representative of the company which produces machines for stonemasons, glaziers and furniture makers is very telling here:

- If it comes to glass industry, we have been able to observe an unprecedented progress for a few years. It is so because they offer low margin products, so everybody does their best to make production costs lower – says Konrad Węgrzyn from Mekanika company.

- Operator is the biggest production cost now. It is very difficult to find a good operator, so companies focus on automation. Automatic loading is now a standard in every big glass company whilst if it comes to stone companies there are just a handful of them! Software for optimising material use, the so-called nesting, waste management, digital slab registration systems are still something new for stonemasons, although they all contribute to material waste reduction.

Now it is time to explain why this part of the text has been entitled “pole vault”. There is a point in technological excellence of processing machines from which any further innovation will not be as revolutionary as previous ones. Feed rate, spindle speed, rich accessory storage … – last years show that engineers performed miracles, but resistance of material or physical laws are so inexorable that the equipment which helps to reach factory performance of production machines is potentially more cost-effective than the machines themselves. It is true that having CNC machining centres guarantees more profits, but the so-called transition times in a nesting like system may ruin even the most advanced production plant. It is important because today we have to find an answer to the question how to provide more customized products in a wider range of options but in smaller batches, offering competitive prices, good quality and short delivery times. Can you imagine that order lead times in your company are getting shorter by as much as 95%?     

NON-PRODUCTIVE TIME    

Identify your resources and production capacities and then plan your production in such a way as to be able to change production plan any time without harming the most important orders. Set priorities, distribute tasks and monitor machine availability. Take into consideration changeover times and share production orders in such a way as to get the best flexibility, that is to be able to manage particular orders between lines or machines.

This is the main idea of QRM (Quick Response Manufacturing) method. QRM makes the whole organisation (material planning, supplies, supply chain management, office work and development of new products) focus on one key habit, that is competing by means of short lead time. Surprisingly, after speaking to technology suppliers – especially CNC machines – we learned that few companies want to (can?) count costs. Example? Let us start from the first stage, that is measuring the building in which stone stairs are to be installed. Non-economical scenario will include as many as 5 steps: getting to the customer and taking measurements; coming back to the company and making templates; going to the customer again to make sure the measurements are good; enter measurements to the machine; cutting the element out.   

- Economical scenario will include only three steps. All you need to do is to give Proliner/Laser device to your workers. Thanks to it, your workers will be able to edit the project in real time with the customer on site. Before they come back to the company, the machine will start doing the project which was previously sent via the Internet and confirmed by the customer – says Konrad Węgrzyn.

There are also other examples of state-of-the-art IT technology. Here is a proof that performance levels of CNC machines are so high that nobody can beat them. Breton XpressTop had its debut at Marmomacc 2017. This is an advanced modular solution for stone companies to manage production, improve efficiency, lower costs and meet higher quality standards of products.  

- We are speaking about a platform and a modular approach, because this software assists the operator all the time. Time saving is treated here in an innovative way. We are able to precisely decide about material resources and to manage production (also low volume production!) process in a very detailed way – says Tomasz Kopka from BRETON Polska.

This software ensures real-time monitoring of the stock. Its users will also avoid mistakes thanks to BOM application (multi-level bill of materials) – everything you need to manufacture a finished product.

STEPS, MY BELOVED STEPS

Proper arrangement of machines and creating of the so-called process line whilst particular line segments are separated by warehouse buffers.  

- Many companies are investing in more processing machines in order to reduce the basic processing time, which includes, for example, drilling or polishing and excluding preparation-completion times in the whole production process – says Bogusław Pawlikiewicz from Expoglass company.

- Paradoxically, optimising the storage process is relatively cheap compared to how much we can save.

Our interviewee prepared a key evidence (see the chart). That is what depreciation of investing in a slab storage looks like. Not only can you put more there than in case of traditional A stands (pyramid type), so it empties a very precious floor, but also optimizes access to the machine. Slabs tilt only to one side which makes loading onto processing station easier. It seems not enough, though. Stonemasons prefer to invest 10 times less in A stands. They do not understand that this is just the initial cost and that investing in the innovative solution will pay off in 7 years and from that moment the storage owner starts getting profits because the total cost of ownership (TCO) of occupied area of the warehouse is lower.  

Let us go on if we are still far away from automation. During loading or unloading of machine – the standard saw is stopped – which means its cutting is stopped. Interchangeable table? It may reduce unproductive delay to just 20 seconds. If you do not have it you may waste a quarter! This is a lot when we take into consideration unloading of cut elements and loading another slab.  

Inefficient processes and late order completions – without looking carefully at machinery stock and organisation of both production and (most of all!) share of unproductive time, it will turn out that competition is able to shorten lead times by 95%! This is not a fairy tale! It is a result of a careful analysis of “bottlenecks” and implementation of a rescue plan.

CHECK THE CONDITION OF MACHINES

Why isn’t this text a paean in honour of stone goods producers? Because few CNC users take advantage of IT advances.

- It’s a pity that we don’t make full use of expensive machines we buy. Planning production? It should be done in the office rather than in front of the CNC machine. The tradesman should sit at his customer’s and the machine operator should get an order from him via the Internet – says Konrad Węgrzyn.

Now something on the margin. Mekanika company is now thinking about another new thing. This time it will help to save money on expensive machinery diagnostic services and repairs. For now we know that a businessman who will have Gepetto app in his phone will be able to make a service request very quickly.

Gathering information on current production, machine operational status and product quality became an indispensable element of everyday work of manufacturing companies. Growing customers’ expectations regarding low repeatability production, top quality guarantee, sector-specific regulations producers have to meet as well as internal pressure to lower production costs make the amount of gathered information bigger year by year. What should we start from? From gathering reliable data, that is equipping operators’ stations with HMI panels, which enable us to complete automatically registered data with context information (e.g. about the cause of machine downtime).

Hiring a robot? We may consider it, as robots like Kuga or Geko can replace a man with loading and unloading goods. But there is another problem here because a stonemason seems to be a more and more difficult contractor. Suffice it to say that today as much as 50% of advanced negotiations are doomed to fail because contracts often rely on getting a subsidy and, as we know, the time of best financial perspectives for Poland is over now.

- It is so, because most today’s calls for applications are addressed to big players who do not want so much to upgrade their machinery stock but to launch a completely new innovative product on the market. In stone processing, researches, patents, innovative products are on one hand difficult to get for an investor and on the other hard to interpret in an application form and final statement of the project. All of this makes getting EU funds for stonemasons very difficult or even impossible – says Grzegorz Górski.

If not EU funds, then perhaps leasing. This may suggest a good financial condition of companies which want to finance their investments quickly and settle these costs as soon as possible. Another optimistic fact is that there is a growing demand on products and services which aim to limit the number of accidents, reduce human effort and speed up repetitive manual-transport processes.  

Do we want changes because customers and contractors are not happy to hear that they will have to bear costs which are typical of handicrafts? The best way to engage workers in the change process is to let them have their say on how they work and workplace should be like.   
 
Rafał Dobrowolski

 

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