Listen to this episode to learn:
- The advantage of using robot saws over other types of automated equipment
- The benefits of a 2-table system
- Different approaches to ensuring employee safety around equipment
If you have stories or insights that you’d like to share with other fabricators, please reach out to Patrick.
Patrick: Welcome to StoneTalk, the pod cast for countertop fabricators, brought to you by Moraware, makers of JobTracker scheduling software and CounterGo estimating software for countertop fabricators. I’m your host Patrick Foley. Today I am speaking with Chuck Russo founder of BACA Systems, let’s give him a call.
Chuck Russo: Good morning, Chuck Russo.
Patrick: Hey, Chuck. This is Patrick from Moraware. How are you doing?
Chuck: I’m good, Patrick.
Patrick: Let’s jump in. If I am looking at things correctly, it looks like you’re a relative newcomer to stone industry, is that true? And what got you into this particular industry?
Chuck: Yes, BACA Systems is new to the stone industry in the last two to three years.
Chuck: And building robotic cutting systems. Our experience, though, for 25 to 30 years was specializing in robotic cutting systems for a variety of different industries. It just was not in the stone industry at the time. So that is correct.
Patrick: What made you want to enter the stone industry, why this industry then?
Chuck: I saw a lot of similarities to and we were very successful in the past doing cutting systems, primarily water jet cutting systems, routing, sawing systems. They were just for different industries. And we had great success in those industries compared to the alternative technology that was being used. I refer to them as custom gantry machines that were built. You saw similarities in the stone market and that business, we actually sold in 2006.
Patrick: Oh, Cool.
Chuck: That business grew to be the largest three-dimensional cutting company in the world, in excess of 4,000 robots cutting. It were were sold and serviced. After that, we were looking at different industries to get back involved robotically, and I found the stone industry. Really, I was looking at some different opportunities and then I got introduced and learned about the stone industry, after being to several shows, saw the similarity of custom built gantry machines for this industry and saw the opportunity that, in our opinion, the robotic cutting systems solution, Robo SawJet, could be a much more cost-effective, smaller footprint, higher output, significantly greater reliability than increased reliability than the current machines that are being offered.
Patrick: I’m a software guy so I do not know all the terms. Explain gantry to me.
Chuck: When you refer to the gantry, you got the motioning system to position the sawer [SP], the abrasive water jet force or jet application. When we refer to a gantry, we are talking about a motion piece. It’s a three- or a four-axis machine. Typically, we’ve got a machine that had built for the industry whether they’re manual bridge saws, whether they’re CNC saws that are saw only or then a combination machine that is typically referred to as a SawJet or it’s a saw and abrasive water jet. But the motion system is typically done with a ball screws or THK rail [inaudible 00:03:34] and bearings versus how we are accomplishing that is by utilizing a KUKA Robot, a six-axis robot.
Patrick: So why is a robot better in your opinion?
Chuck: We think the robot has a lot of different advantages over the traditional equipment. First, it does allow for a smaller footprint, and enough floor space is very important to the fabricators in all businesses. A lot of fabricators are looking to take out their current sawing equipment, have a more efficient machine, so floor space can be a consideration, and gears that are exposed to the harsh environment of the stone facility and cost of ownership. It’s not just about the investment today. It’s how much over the next 10 years are you going to have to put into a piece of equipment, to keep it operating.
Robots, for years, have been known to be a very reliable solution. The robot is completely sealed. There is no bearings. The harsh environment does have significant effect as we have found, and lot of customers have found, on their gantries that cause premature failures on components. So the robot is significantly more reliable. From an operating cost standpoint, it’s significantly less. Our experience also is that the robot can traverse from position to position significantly faster, therefore reducing the cycle time as well.
Really our customers find that by utilizing a Robo SawJet over the alternative solutions is it provides for a smaller footprint, higher throughput, lower capital cost initially because the robots are built at high volume. It’s not a machine that’s built for 50, or 100 or 200. There’s an excess of 20,000 robots produced by KUKA in an annual year. So it drives the cost down and provides for additional reliability for the customer. When you look from a technology standpoint, when you have a variety of industries that are doing not exactly the same thing, but there are similarities, there becomes real benefits for different industries.
For example, KUKA Robots are used in the aerospace industry for Boeing and Airbus. So while it’s not cutting granite or quartz, there are cutting applications for carbon fiber that are going on. There’s robots that are used, KUKA Robots in the wind energy business, and again cutting applications. Siemens uses the same robot, and there is over a thousand robots for surgeries that are being done by KUKA. So all these different applications do have synergies and similarities, so the software and the technology that is developed can be shared across a wide variety of industries, so it brings technology to the market faster and also driving cost down.
Patrick: So this is what you are talking about. The alternative is a custom built gantry, meaning because that’s not relativity mass produced the way a robot is, it’s going to cost more and just have the additional issues of variability that arises when something is custom built. I didn’t realize that.
Chuck: That is true. In our opinion, that is very true. The guys to a great job in that business, building those machines, but it’s a completely different style machine that’s built. The benchmarks and the requirements, for instance, when you go into a Mercedes Benz plant and you’ll find 4,000 robots that are cooped, that are there. The demand for the uptime and the reliability that’s pushed down from high volume producers like that, it drives those manufactures to align with certain suppliers, whether its a servomotor manufacturer, electronic bars, the requirements are just far more stringent that they put on KUKA to produce a product to do that.
For example, when you take an automotive line, even though we’re not processing a stone in the automotive line, the requirement that is demanded by KUKA from [inaudible 00:07:55] failure, how often a unit would fail over the life of the machine or the maintenance that’s required is significantly different. Another good example would be on the KUKA Robot, literally, the maintenance is you changing oil in 5 years or 10,000 hours. That’s the maintenance on the robot versus a gantry in this environment, the manufacturer may call out to pull the bellows back, wipe the rails down, you’re greasing more up, and there’s just continual maintenance where you could imagine that drives that is in the automotive, when you have 300 machines on a line, they don’t want to be out. They’re doing maintenance daily, weekly, monthly. They won’t tolerate it.
And again, literally, you can submerse the entire arm that we utilize, my [inaudible 0:08:44] arm. I’m talking about the six-axis KUKA Robot. It’s completely sealed and pressurized, so you can submerse it, literally, under water and operate the upper arm. So significantly a different type of motion solution.
Patrick: So you don’t even have to grease it on a weekly or even yearly basis? Just 10,000 hours or 5 years.
Chuck: There’s two, yeah, it’s the maintenance, and you change the batteries for the backup on the controller, so significantly different. So the customers that have been operating them, and KUKA Robots are being using, hundreds and hundreds of robots by KUKA in the stone industry over in Europe, but in the US, we’re seeing a lot of customers finding the benefit of that. Now for BACA, we have customers, actually a significant amount of our customers actually have experience with the other equipment. And because of the reliability and they’re looking for higher throughput, have been purchasing Robo SawJets from BACA.
Patrick: Now the serviceable parts on the cutting side would be the same or similar, right? You still have to…
Chuck: They are similar. You are absolutely right. You’ve got the motion sign, and I would break a SawJet into two pieces, primarily. Let’s talk about it in three areas. You’ve have got the motion piece that we have spoken quite a bit about and it’s done with the KUKA Robot. Then you have the process side. We are running a proven 20-horsepower [inaudible 00:10:13] motor that we do the cutting with, but then on the abrasive water jet cutting, BACA and the team members of BACA have been doing water jet cutting since the late 1980s. So we are very, very knowledgeable about water jet cutting. In fact, a lot of the applications that BACA, that the prior company that most of the people had worked at, those companies were 24 hours a day, 7 days a week producing components running water jet cutting machines.
So we are very focused on operating cost of the water jet equipment. There is a significant difference between manufacturers, the components, how the technology is applied. So BACA has significant experience and truly has the lowest operating cost on the high pressure water jet side than other manufactures and what is supplied.
Patrick: Cool. I see you also use two-table system by default, why is that important?
Chuck: I wouldn’t say that by default. We do, and most of our customers, I would say 98% purchase the dual table. And the reason why they’re buying the dual table is it really allows you to double your production. Once you’re done cutting the slab, and obviously, the reason why customers move to SawJet technology is the benefit of reducing or increasing your material yield and reducing your material costs — cutting all your arch, your radiuses on most materials, even cutting your sink openings and really reducing your downstream manufacturing costs of all those secondary operations. So literally the pieces come off ready for profiling, and it’s a significant reduction.
So once you cut the pieces, you got to be able to load and unload the table and remove you scrap. And by having two tables, we can be processing on table one, while we’re loading and unloading. So we eliminate the idle time during the load and unload. We’ll call it masking the manufacturing process. That allows you to be processing an entire slab anywhere from 14 to 20 minutes while you do the load and unload, and then the robot just turns around and starts processing again, because the other part is already loaded. So most customers want that benefit.
You can start with a single table and have the ability to upgrade to a side table, so there’s lots of advantages if you want to have a scalable machine as well. Again, because of the cost base, we can be very competitive with a dual table system, still with an almost the footprint they’d been running a manual or a CNC saw. So most customers do move right into a dual table. The ones that don’t may be very, very tight on floor space. That’s probably the reason why they may not buy a dual table.
Patrick: I saw one of your customer videos and your customer referred to your robotic system as being different from CNC, and it sounded like you just did as well. I mean this is still CNC, and that its computer and numerical control, isn’t it? Or is it robotic means not CNC?
Chuck: I think the term that people refer to is digital. It’s not typically robots aren’t referred to as CNC. That really has to do with the G code of the programming. The third piece that I didn’t mention is the main operating system, how easy is the machine to use. We aren’t using CAM software. It’s a PC-based operating system that makes it very easy for the customer to be able to program the system.
Patrick: So tell me about the supporting software. I see that you have VeinMatch and GraniteStudio. First of all, just at high level, what do those two pieces of software do?
Chuck: The VeinMatch is what allows you to actually, as we know on different materials, we have the material flow, and typically, when we’re trying to match veins on the other type of equipment being a CNC saw that maybe you’re not taking a calibrated photo of the material and being able to take a DXF file of those different individual pieces and actually put them together and see them on the side of the screen. So you literally visualize and see the kitchen, see how the material flows together. You can use that as a tool in the sales process so that instead of the customer looking at it and saying, “Well, how will the vein flow through where my seam is going to be or where the material turns in the kitchen,” you can actually provide that turn as a drawing and they can actually sign off on that if you choose to conduct your business in that manner.
It is very beneficial from a sales tool. It allows you to certainly be able to show to a customer a complete layout, have a sign off on a job. The VeinMatching is very, very helpful versus doing it by eye. So even if it’s on a single slab, let’s say you have bookmark slab, you can actually go down and find another vein that is similar and actually match them, and really improve the material flow on the project.
GraniteStudio is actually a standalone photo station that allows you to take your photos in advance. You can do the VeinMatching right out on the system, right in production, or you can have a separate photo station where you’re actually taking photos in advance and doing this workup prior. It doesn’t interrupt the production of the machine. So we have our own VeinMatch software. We also work very closely with Slabsmith which is another manufacture which is commonly used in the industry. We integrate with our own software, but also with Slabsmith, who has a terrific prac [SP] in the industry as well.
Patrick: Right. So you said it’s not CAD or a CAM software. If you already know how to use that software, is this similar enough that it’s easy to set up?
Chuck: Sure, if you already know how to use that software. It just doesn’t require such a separate training in a new operator. It’s much easier than somebody having to have that experience as well.
Patrick: What about CNC routers and things like that? This is on the cutting side. Do you also offer a robotic router or is that something that is in the works? Or that’s not something that’s in your wheelhouse?
Chuck: No, actually the folks at BACA have a lot of experience in routing, cutting systems as well, and we think those are great opportunities as well. We think that the stone industry and the manufacturing of solid surface materials, there’s is a lot of different opportunities in applications for KUKA Robots and for BACA to apply their knowledge, so certainly there are more applications that BACA is working on, yes.
Patrick: Cool. So with what we have today, though, let’s say I’m a fabricator and I have been doing everything manually and now I want to automate. I could start with a SawJet or I could get a CNC router or I could get a line polisher. Do you have an opinion on why you should start with one or another of those three options? Ultimately, why should I start with a robotic SawJet or should I?
Chuck: That is an excellent question. We have a lot of people who are asking us that. We do to see a trend with clients and come visit BACA and evaluating what is the next technology they should purchase. I think one of the key things is, in our opinion, it all starts at the saw. The saw can either be the bottleneck for the plant, or it can actually, it can also create so much work downstream if you’re not using a SawJet based solution.
In our opinion, and again, that has to do with really being able to process as much as possible right at the sawing operation, and that is to be able to cut all your arcs, all your radiuses, and eliminating the secondary sawing by hand, eliminating even after you saw your arcs and radiuses and you still have to clean those areas up before you go to profile, whether it’s on a CNC or by hand, and so as well as by the sink openings that can be cut right on the SawJet. So when you look at reducing labor and reducing the man-hours that go into producing a kitchen, the benefit of being able to get a job done with two slabs and not move into a third slab and maybe save, if it’s a job that has higher end material costing anywhere for $700 to $1200 on a single job, because you don’t move into that third slab, or you get the job done with one slab, that happens all the time by using a ROBO SawJet.
When you look at the return on investment, being able to do that, I just don’t know that by profiling and polishing on a CNC you can accomplish the same thing on a specific project. So having material yield savings on every job you do is significant. Reducing the man-hours that goes into cutting the slab which also reduces your downstream manufacturing is significant. I don’t know of another piece of equipment that allows you to, for instance, cutting two slabs on average. Every plant is different, but on average, if you take two slabs, and you take your load and unload, your layout time, your cutting of the slab, the material yield, and then your secondary worker, again, cutting the arcs, cutting the radiuses, doing the sink. If you total all that up to do two slabs, you can be at two or three hours a slab, so you got six hours of labor that goes into cutting two slabs, as well as the downstream manufacturer. All that work can be done in 40 minutes on a ROBO SawJet and two slabs, and then having the higher material yield savings.
So we hear from a lot of customers, they find that the best and single most important way to increase their profitability in their plant is to implement a ROBO SawJet. Then they find also that taking that and going right to a line polisher is very cost effective. So there is the need for the CNCs, but I think those are two of the very important pieces of equipment in the facilities.
Patrick: If you had a customer who is using you SawJet and they asked you about who should I go to for a line polisher, is there someone you would recommend?
Chuck: I think there are several very good manufactures that make line polishers.
Patrick: Okay. By the way, before I forget, you mentioned your robots are six axis, does that allow me to tilt the blade and cut a miter at an angle into the stone or some other way to tilt the table, so that I can accomplish a miter [inaudible 00:20:55] or something?
Chuck: Yes, if you are going to do mitering, you can tilt the saw blade to be able to do mitering. The model that we have out today, most of the customers are not mitering with the ROBO SawJet.
Patrick: Why not?
Chuck: First of all, when someone is running the ROBO SawJet, they are looking for high output. They’re really blanking out the material. Not every customer is doing mitering. If they are, a lot of them have other equipment that they also have in their facility. And when your water jet table is not a flat surface, over time, when you’re cutting, the slats end up on not flat, the material is B side down. So when you have your stack up, you have variation in the material.
Now you can probe the material and be able to do an offset for the material not being completely flat. But you’re using a blade that’s really made for speed for saw cutting, not a blade that’s the ideal blade that would produce minimal chipping. So some customers choose to actually do the mitering as a second step. But there’s different work robot envelopes, larger robots that can allow you to do the mitering and have the work envelope needed. It’s really customer preference.
Patrick: Interesting. So let’s talk about how you fit in a little bit. This is a competitive space how do you try to distinguish yourself from the competition and just from a branding perspective? What’s special about BACA systems? If you met someone at a cocktail party who was considering three saws, in a statement, what makes BACA Systems the one they should go with?
Chuck: Actually you’re asking specific to the difference about BACA in regards to they’re already had made their mind up that they’re looking at a SawJet based solution?
Patrick: Correct. Right.
Chuck: So the customer already realizes the return on investment for running a SawJet. The reason why companies look to BACA, today, we have the smallest footprint, highest output, highest reliability in a system, and the operating cost at that point really becomes really the water jet cutting technology and we have more experience, in our opinion, than anyone else that’s applying SawJet solutions that understand water jet and are focused on the operating cost of the system, short term and long term, for our customers.
Patrick: Nice. So I know service is important to people, so what about service? So if something does break, how do you deal with it? What can a customer expect?
Chuck: Sure. It is extremely important, and certainly, you know, [inaudible 0:23:34] I had mentioned, service is always important to all customers. We had customers that run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We have our own hotline. We are able to support the systems, if you’re actually seeing the operation of the systems, be live with our customers, troubleshoot, answers questions immediately, which it’s more about how do I use do this feature, something that they learned in training that they need to be refreshed on. We are able to do that immediately and provide service. We service the entire system from the high pressure to the complete motion side. We have service technicians that are across the country being partnered – we’re actually KUKA’s exclusive partner for America. And being able to work with KUKA, we have service technicians from the west coast to the southeast to Texas to the northeast. So we have local people, if, in fact, there is a need.
Patrick: Cool. What’s your strategy for growing your business, for adding new customers? How do you find customers and how do you handle the sales process?
Chuck: We are a growing business. We have a lot of customers. As large as the industry is, it’s a small industry that people really know each other. Today, BACA receives a lot of phone calls from other folks that are in, with their other associates that they know in the industry, they see the ROBO SawJets. We have some systems across the country today. We continue to grow through opportunities of customers talking with their other peers in the business.
We obviously go to the trade shows and have a lot of interest from the trade shows and customers visit to better understand the technology and get educated, and that’s really our job to make sure we can share the information with potential customers, so they have all the background information to make an educated decision.
Patrick: I have to call out because it’s kind of interesting, on your website, you have an offer, “Fly to Detroit at our expense. We invite you to see the system in action for free.” That is a pretty aggressive offer.
Chuck: Well again, I think that’s exactly what I had just stated. We want people in the industry to better understand the technology, understand the differences and what it can do for them. The best way to demonstrate that and show that is to have them be able to come in and see firsthand.
Patrick: That’s cool. So let’s end on a bit of a chin-stroking question. There is probably a future element to this. I have been interested, as I go into shops, how customers deal with problems of safety and even things like noise. Any equipment is going to make some sound. It’s the nature of the equipment. How do you participate in thinking about these problems and making improvements on that? Again, you can’t completely get rid of noise and you cannot have a 100% safe product. How do you think about it and improve that going forward, how do you look for opportunities there?
Chuck: There are a couple areas. And you’re right, there’s certainly the decibel level that exists already in the plant from other processes going on. So there are a couple things, you’ve got the abrasive water jet that there are different means of diffusing the DD level. At times, you could consider raising the water over the material. There are pluses and minuses with that, having baffle systems in the tanks to do that. Most of the people in the industry find not cutting under water, but having the water table up as close to the part is adequate to accomplish the DD level.
From a safety standpoint, we do supply different than some other machines in the industry. We do supply guarding that surrounds the system allows you to be, again, loading and unloading on table one while you are cutting on table two. But if, in fact, you were to re-approach that table and then go past the safe zone, the machine actually stops. Then you just have to hit resume to start. We really don’t want to have our customers have their operator up at the table when the robot is processing on the table.
Now the other machines that are out in the industry, there’s just quite a few of them that you can actually go right up and have your hands up on the table and be working on the table, reaching around the safety device that they have. That’s not something that we’re doing. We’re providing a completely guarded system from BACA.
Patrick: I’m glad I asked that question, that’s an interesting answer, actually. I value fingers, so I prefer people don’t lose them.
Chuck: People never want to get hurt. And certainly, honestly, the companies don’t want their employees to be injured. What I think what we’ve all seen is somebody thinks they’re doing their company a favor, when they see something happen, they reach back up onto the table to take a piece out or a piece that moved. And by reaching up there, all of a sudden, the machine comes over and an accident happens. We’re not in the business of getting people hurt.
Patrick: That’s awesome. This was super interesting. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me and share this with our audience. Again, I didn’t know the difference between robotic and gantry systems, so this was eye-opening to me. I also agree that education is key, I hope a bunch of different people hear about this option and make informed choices as they go in this type of direction.
Chuck: We’re actually happy you called to have us be able to share what BACA is doing. We’re excited about the industry. There’s lots opportunities. Robotics are, from all types of industries, as you Google KUKA Robotics and you look at the work they’re doing again in the aerospace field, in the automotive, robots in freezer applications at 20 below, it’s very interesting, all the different applications that are being done worldwide and will be continued to be done. There is great opportunity for KUKA Robots and BACA Systems in the stone industry, and we are very happy to be participating.
Patrick: Very cool. Well thanks again, if you have any updates, let us know, and perhaps we’ll have you on again in the future.
Chuck: Sounds great, thanks for your time.
Patrick: Thanks a lot, Chuck, bye.
Thanks for listening to StoneTalk, the podcast for countertop fabricators. If you liked this episode, be sure to visit stonetalk.org or subscribe to StoneTalk in iTunes for more. Visit the StoneTalk Show Facebook page to join in the conversation and follow @stonestalkshow on Twitter. StoneTalk is brought to you by Moraware, makers of JobTracker scheduling software and CounterGo estimating software for countertop fabricators. I am your host, Patrick Foley, and I look forward to spending time with you again on the next episode of StoneTalk.