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The digital revolution in stone working : by J Rotherham MD Matt Rotherham

14 December 2017

Matt Rotherham, the Managing Director of leading stone company J Rotherham, reflects on the fourth industrial revolution.

Matt Rotherham is the Managing Director of one of the UK's largest and most technologically advanced stone processing companies, J Rotherham in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Here he presents a thoughtful end of year summary of the progress of Industry 4.0, the so-called fourth industrial revolution of machine talking to machine, and where that leaves people.

A good way to picture modern technology in the stone trade is to think of the machine as a mechanical assistant to the human master. Much the same way as the apprentice would be an assistant to the master artist. More skilled roles such as programming and engineering will still support the work of the masons in creating products of timeless beauty and design. 

For millennia civilisations have crafted stone to provide habitats, initially perhaps for safety and refuge and then, since the first of the great western civilisations, for its enduring beauty and status. By the time of the Roman Empire, stone had become the must have material for civic building prowess, as Emperor Caesar Augustus famously boasted: “I found Rome a city of brick, and left it a city of marble.” 

Until the 21st century, the skills used to achieve the permanent architecture of stone changed little. While transportation methods may have altered – from the Egyptian pulley system, through horse and cart in the agricultural age to the steam-power of the industrial revolution and then the internal combustion engine – the cutting and shaping of stone itself was performed using principally only a mallet, bolster and chisel. 

Where, then, does the digital revolution and the onset of the Internet-of-Things leave stone craftsmanship? 

The answer is that, like in most industries, technology in manufacturing equipment and processes has advanced significantly and will continue to do so. 

The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) forecasts that by 2020 more than 1.7million new industrial robots will be installed in factories internationally.

As some of these machines are in stone factories, does this mean true masonry craftsmanship will be lost forever as autonomous machines take over? 

We suspect not. At least, not any time soon. 

At J Rotherham, we have seen incredible opportunities to capitalise on new technologies as an aid to traditional craftsmanship and we define the benefits in four key areas: Service, Price, Quality and Responsibility (for more details of each see below). 

Many debates continue around the increased use of robotics and automation and where society might end up as a result. 

According to The Manufacturer, a recent survey stated that "82.9% of industry professionals believe there should be an increased focus on human factors at the initial design stage to encourage the interaction with and acceptance of robotics” and “78.9% feel more should be done to promote the benefits of automation and encourage acceptance”.

From our experience, technology in the stone industry has been an unquestionable force for positive change. It is easy to see the consumer benefits with products such as quartz and granite worktops, once only affordable to the elite few, are now available for the wider consumer market. 

It is pleasing that the people involved in the industry are also seeing benefits, with a broader range of skilled jobs being created because of these technological advances.

The workforce of tomorrow will look very different to the one of today, with many of the more routine, less skilled and laborious jobs being automated first. 

But a loss of the number of jobs overall? Deloitte states that while technology has potentially contributed to the loss of over 80,000 lower skilled jobs, there is equally strong evidence that it has helped create nearly 3.5million new higher skilled jobs. 

Service, Price, Quality and Responsibility

Service: The synchronisation of machines and systems within the Internet-of-Things (ie machines automatically talking to one another) is leading to ever improved standards of service. In the granite worktops industry, up until circa 2010 nearly all kitchens required a hard board template (accurate measurement of the worktop pieces required to fit on top of the cabinets). These templates would have to be loaded into a van and sent back to the factory to be digitally copied and processed ready for production. 

The development of digital template machines has had a profound effect on improving service levels, both through reduced lead times due to the instant digital transfer of the template from site to the factory, and by reducing error rates through only having one file that transfers directly to the production machines.

Price: Technology is evolving rapidly within the stone industry. While CNC machines were a rarity before the 1990s (J Rotherham led the way with its first stone working CNC machine installed in 1988 and this year installed what it believes is the world’s first robotic line for kitchen worktop production), the type and availability of specialist machines to cope with any number of specific tasks has grown exponentially. 

As recently as the 1970s, slabs of granite would be cut using a two person hand-held saw, one person on each end required to laboriously cut in tandem with the other person. It was a process that could take more than 20 minutes to cut a single linear metre of material. Modern CNC saws cut solid 30mm stone slab at approximately three linear metres a minute – a 60 fold increase in productivity.  

Quality: A synergy is evolving between man and machine. Quality levels are increased substantially, ensuring consistency and reliability of the finished products. Digital tool measuring devices accurately calibrate the various tools required to perform the cutting and polishing processes ensuring the machine and tool work to exact tolerances to support a higher standard of finish. 

Responsibility: When it comes to safety, one of the biggest advances in the years ahead will be robots handling materials for stone manufacture. Transporting large quantities of heavy materials around the factory was a strenuous and potentially dangerous task for the original muscle power involved. While manual lifting equipment has improved the process over recent years, robotic handling will increase, supporting the work of the masons in creating products of timeless beauty and design.

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