BCR: Trends in Automation

November 1, 2005
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Robots and automated systems are enabling an increasing number of brick manufacturers to increase productivity and product quality.

The first robotic brick setter, installed at Robinson Brick Co., Denver, Colo., in 1997.
Robots are not the novelty in the brick industry that they were eight or 10 years ago. Conservatively, more than 200 robots have been put into service in the North American brick industry since the first robotic brick setting installation at Robinson Brick in 1997. Of the robots installed to date, FANUC has been and continues to be the main supplier to the industry.

While the original robot installations focused primarily on setting green brick on kiln cars, the past few years have seen significant strides in the development of robots used for brick dehacking and blending, which has led to significant reductions in the plant workforce. The opportunity for more consistent and reproducible blending, better packages and a reduction in jobsite problems are a few of the other reasons that plant operators are considering this type of automation. Some current dehacking and blending installations have been designed with rates in excess of 40,000 brick per hour.

Robots used for brick dehacking and blending at Pine Hall Brick Co., Fairmount, Ga.

Continuing Advances

Recently, the use of automation in the brick industry has begun to noticeably accelerate. And the trend toward automation is not limited to new manufacturing facilities-automatic setting equipment and dehackers have generally become key elements in major plant retrofits. Historically, brick setting and dehacking have been very labor-intensive operations in brick manufacturing plants. The current difficulties of assembling and maintaining a reliable workforce-coupled with the related problems of absenteeism, injuries, high insurance costs, productivity lapses, product quality shortcomings and competitive pressures-have been some of the factors motivating the march to automation.

The fact that robots generally require less floor and overhead space than the traditional gantry-type setters makes them an attractive alternative for existing plant retrofits. Upgrades of hand-setting operations usually allow a simplification of setting patterns due to the precision of robotic setting. Robots can also eliminate the need for the hand ties that are commonly used in manual setting operations. Finger marks, damaged arrises and other green brick imperfections related to hand setting are also eliminated with robotics. Another added benefit of robotic setting is the more precise, stable and reproducible spacing of green products on the kiln car, which tends to promote more uniform drying and firing.

The size of robots has continued to increase, with the latest models able to handle a payload approaching 1000 lbs at a typical cycle time of about 12 seconds. This load and cycle time equates to one robot setting up to 28,000 brick per hour. Aside from such high productivity rates, extreme reliability and low maintenance are the hallmarks of a robot, as compared to a gantry-type setter.

In the ongoing development of robotics used in brick plant operations, a good deal of interest has been focused on the integration of vision systems to complement robot tasks. At this juncture, the use of vision technology has been largely unsuccessful because of the exceptional difficulties in the recognition of the color and texture nuances associated with the extensive product ranges at many of today's brick plants. However, while little work is being done in this area currently, the development of vision systems for brick production might be rekindled at some point in the future.

Complete Control

One of the least considered, yet substantial and far-reaching, benefits of automation is the potential for computer control of the entire brick making process. However, it would be very difficult to achieve full plant computer control without a well-thought-out, detailed plan and qualified control engineering staff.

Automation of a specific plant task allows for the simple collection of data through communication with a computer. When information is gathered from multiple locations in the manufacturing facility, the computer can analyze this data, prepare reports and identify trends. In turn, the various reports can be distributed to the respective plant supervisors, as well as production, quality control and maintenance personnel. The collection and distillation of information through plant automation represents a valuable tool in the ongoing quest for improvement of overall plant operations. Additionally, the sharing of information with other company departments such as sales and accounting can enhance cooperation and promote achievement of corporate goals. There is also the potential for certain plant-gathered information to be used online as a way to keep clients or other interested parties abreast of manufacturing schedules, availability of orders, changes in product specifications and so forth.

The operative message regarding plant automation today is to "think beyond the immediate benefit of installing a piece of equipment." Plant automation coupled with data collection and dissemination is the future of the brick industry.

For more information about robots and automated systems, contact Ceric, Inc. at 350 Indiana St., Suite 550, Golden, CO 80401; (303) 277-0404; fax (303) 277-0506; e-mail info@cericus.com; or visit www.cericus.com.

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