Industry Spotlight: Technology & Rocks

Every time I think of the word “Rock” there is a small giggle that goes off inside.  It reminds me of a time when one of my old college professors held up a piece of stone (at the time a “rock” in my opinion) and said “This is not a rock!”  That message has stuck with me for years.  His point was the fact that any type of “Rock” is something, some type of mineral or make up of multiple minerals from the earth. 

But when people think of “Rocks” the word technology hardly ever comes along with it.  Take a simple Google search for example.  Search the word “Rock” and you get over 2.5 BILLION search results.  Some results are pretty explicit because most of them have to do with Rock N’ Roll.  So to make a better comparison I searched the world “Natural Stone”, about 160 million results.  But still, even on page 6 of the search, there is no mention of the word technology (at least at the time of writing this article).

Rest assured we have come a long way in technology when it comes to “manufacturing and fabricating," taking into account the natural stone business and the end result being one single piece of stone. We will be using Granite as the natural stone of choice for the remainder of the article to point out how technology has evolved and is being used in the stone industry. 

For those of you not familiar with granite, it can be found all over the world and comes in various colors and hardness, depending on the composition of the stone and geological location.  It is used on buildings, roads, shorelines, cemeteries, and other various purposes, be it protection from land erosion, beds for road paving, national monuments, skyscrapers, countertops, or a loved ones' memorial.

Let’s start with the fact that granite needs to be extracted out of a quarry.  Not too many years ago, explosives were used to extract a “Loaf” of stone out of a ledge in a quarry.  With the technology advancements in sawing, the use of explosives is very limited (but occasionally necessary for creating a keyway to start a new area for stone extraction in the quarry).

Once a loaf is separated from the rest of the earth, it is broken up into “Blocks”.  These blocks are what get hauled into certain stone fabricators for projects.  (Numerous others also receive it in slab form, see below).  Have any of you ever seen the cartoon “Flintstones”?  Fred and Barney work in a quarry and they use cranes and dinosaurs to haul the stone around.  Derrick cranes are still sometimes used today to lift blocks out of quarries (this is a link to pretty good video showing the Derrick system that was found via YouTube search, but if possible quarries are converting into “drive in” quarries and today’s dinosaurs are monstrous loaders.

Once a block is brought into the fabrication facility, it gets sawn up to fit project requirements.  Typically, this is in the form of a slab, as shown above.  Occasionally the block will be left whole if a larger cubic piece is needed.  For larger production facilities, the days where of hand chiseling are dwindling, although it is still favored for certain needs. CNC machines are being used to do anything from basic straight cuts of paving to complex columns and curvatures. 

Certain production facilities rely on drafters or someone to sketch out what the piece of stone is to look like and where particular cutouts or finishes are applied.  AutoCAD was the technology that replaced hand sketching for parts (pieces of granite for our discussion), and in today’s world, Autodesk Inventor, Revit, and other 3-D modeling softwares are continually replacing AutoCAD. The more advancement we have in machines with multi-axis cutting, the more we rely on 3-D models to run them. 

Let’s take a little more in-depth look at this process. An architect designs a project with some sort of granite in the scope. Let's say it's a retaining wall type area along a ramped sidewalk. The sidewalk area of landscape has quite a slope to it and the granite pieces curve to a radius.

Rather than taking this area and trying to calculate all the curves and heights of the stone to match the terrain by using 2-D sketching, we can model it using software such as Autodesk Inventor.  A scan of the actual terrain can be imported or a close replication can be created by the use of a surface.  Then, stone profiles can then be sketched to accommodate the slope of the surface.  This area can then be split up to represent the joints and different individual stone pieces (your parts).

Now, with advanced technology, these parts can be brought right into any type of machining or tooling software to create tool paths.  Remember those blocks and slabs we mentioned earlier in the article?  They can now be set on the bed of the most economical CNC machine and cut accordingly. CNC technology has been around for some time now, but as the technology and software evolves, the less we go back to the practices of Fred and Barney Rubble. Don’t get me wrong, there is still use of hand sculpting and carving, but today’s use is in conjunction with the technology we have along with personal expertise and skill. 

What will the future hold for us in the “Rock” business or any other manufacturing business?  I am excited to find out.

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