BCR: Setting with Robots

November 1, 2002
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Robotic setters are helping General Shale Brick reduce labor requirements and worker injuries while improving setting accuracy and kiln stability.

An increasing number of brick plants—including United Brick & Tile’s Adel, Ga., facility, shown above—are turning to robotic setting. Photo courtesy of Ceric Inc. and United Brick & Tile.
Robots aren’t new in the brick industry—the first robots were installed in a brick plant in the winter of 1997. But robotic technology has advanced significantly over the past several years, becoming increasingly more reliable and less expensive. As a result, a growing number of brick manufacturers have recently begun replacing traditionally labor-intensive parts of their manufacturing processes with these high-tech, automated systems. As of June 2002, nearly 130 robots were operating in brick plants in North America, with 64% used for setting operations, 31% for dehacking, 1% for cubing and 1% for shapes packaging. By the end of this decade, it is estimated that as many as 500 robots could be in operation in the brick industry.1

General Shale Brick, headquartered in Johnson City, Tenn., decided early on that it wanted to be one of the leaders in adopting robotic technology. But before robots could become a part of its production lines, the company had to overcome some technological challenges related to achieving its popular tumbled “Tudor” texture with automatic machines. Additionally, the payload capability of the early robots was only around 400 lbs, making them impractical for most setting operations.

By 2000, however, both of these obstacles had been overcome, and the company began investigating a robotic setter for its Mooresville, Ind., plant. The plant was built in 1986, and while space had been left in the original design for a future setting machine, hacking had to be done by hand until an automatic setter was installed. Ten people were needed to perform this hand hacking operation, and the process was far from perfect. Setting accuracy and kiln stability were subject to human error, and the high amount of manual labor resulted in elevated manufacturing costs and a high risk of worker injury.

The conventional solution would have been to install an air-bag setter. In fact, General Shale made a verbal commitment with Auto-Systems, Ramseur, N.C., for an air-bag setter in early 2000. But when the company started hearing positive comments about Ceric Inc.’s robotic setters from other plants, it decided to pursue that option instead. “Prices for the robotic machines were similar to or less than non-robotic machines. Additionally, we were impressed with Ceric’s engineering staff, and we knew they had the expertise in robotic setting that we needed,” said Bob Keyes, General Shale’s manager of automation and technology.

Building a Hybrid Machine

Despite General Shale’s enthusiasm over the robotic setter, the company didn’t want to abandon its earlier agreement with Auto-Systems, so it negotiated a unique solution: Auto-Systems would design the front end of the machine, including a push-up cutter, a fixturing system and a marshalling table, and Ceric would design the back end with the two Fanuc setting robots that would be required to set the brick on the 12-wide kiln cars. General Shale also decided to work with Star Engineering to implement automatic kiln car movers at the same time the new setter was installed.

According to Terry Beverly, General Shale’s director of engineering, teamwork was essential. “All of the companies involved worked closely together to make this a successful project,” he said.

In the initial layout, the new “hybrid” setting machine was designed to be installed in the plant’s existing holding room. However, General Shale wanted to avoid extensive downtime and minimize changes to the holding room. “Ed Lineberry, co-owner of Auto-Systems, developed a way to move the slugs through the plant while keeping the machine outside the holding room. This enabled us to keep our holding room the same and install the new machine with only a three-week shutdown,” Beverly said.

In August 2001, the new machine began operation in the Mooresville plant. The machine transports extruded slugs to a cutter platen, which lifts the slugs through a series of horizontally strung wires to cut the brick into the specified sizes. The brick are then pushed onto a texturing table, where the texture is added. A stacker lifts the brick from the texturing table and stacks them two high on the adjacent marshalling table, where they are presented to the robots to be placed on the kiln car.

With a payload capability of 840 lbs, the robots easily handle the required setting speed of 37,000 brick per hour. Setting accuracy has been improved compared to the manual operation, leading to minimized movement, improved bung stature and increased kiln car stability. Additionally, a reduction in manual labor enabled the company to reduce the risk of worker injury and quickly recoup its initial investment in the system. “Only two people now run the machine, instead of the 10 that were previously needed for the manual hacking operation. It didn’t take very long for the machine to pay for itself,” Beverly said.

The new robotic setter in General Shale’s Louisville, Ky., plant is similar to this system installed at Redland Brick Inc.’s Harmar plant in Harmar Twp. (Cheswick), Pa. Photo courtesy of Ceric Inc. and Redland Brick Inc.

Sharing the Success

Based on the success of its Mooresville installation, General Shale also decided to install a robotic setter in its Louisville, Ky., plant. The plant was built in 1996 to handle straight-edged brick, and it used a push-through cutter, spread table and an air-bag setter to handle the cutting and setting operations. However, when the company switched the plant over to manufacturing Tudor brick, it wanted a more sophisticated setting machine.

“Robots operate for long periods of time with minimal maintenance, changeovers can be done quickly, and the setting accuracy is equal to or better than conventional machines. Most importantly, we knew the robotic setter could successfully handle our Tudor texture brick,” said Keyes.

This time, the company purchased the entire setting machine from Ceric. “The machine in the Mooresville plant works fine—we haven’t had any problems with it. But we wanted Ceric to handle the entire machine in our Louisville plant so we could work with one supplier,” Beverly said.

The new machine began operating in February 2002. Like the Mooresville plant, the brick in Louisville are cut with horizontally strung wires and are then pushed onto a texturing table, where the texture is added. However, unlike the Mooresville operation, the Louisville plant uses a transfer robot instead of a stacker to move the brick from the texturing part of the machine. The transfer robot places the brick on a conveyor, which carries the brick to the two setting robots to be placed on 16-wide kiln cars. The robots at the Louisville plant set between 36,000 and 37,000 brick per hour.

Based on its experiences at both the Mooresville and Louisville plants, General Shale plans to install robotic setters at a number of other facilities in the future.

“The robotic setters have enabled us to lower our manufacturing costs, improve our setting accuracy, increase the stability of our kiln cars, reduce the potential for worker injury and stabilize our long-term forecasts for plant production,” said Keyes. “We believe that robots are the future in handling brick.”

For More Information

For more information about robotic setters, contact Ceric Inc., 350 Indiana St., Suite 550, Golden, CO 80401; (303) 277-0404; fax (303) 277-0506; e-mail info@cericus.com; or visit http://www.cericus.com.
For more information about Auto-Systems, contact the company at 839 Crestwick Rd., Ramseur, NC 27316; (336) 824-3580.
For more information about General Shale Brick, contact the company at P.O. Box 3547, Johnson City, TN 37602; (800) 414-4661; or visit http://www.generalshale.com.

1. This data is based on information presented by Christophe Aubertot, vice president of Ceric Inc., at the 2001 International Brick Plant Operator’s Forum, Clemson, S.C.

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