Operational excellence: Rock of Ages T he National World War II Memorial in Washington DC honours more than 400,000 Americans who were killed in that conflict. It was dedicated in 2004, and its design and execution had to be the best, so it's no surprise that the largest pieces in the memorial- the Atlantic and Pacific Memorial Arches- were commissioned from Rock of Ages. Each arch is 23 feet wide and 48 feet high, weighs approximately 700 tons, and includes a balcony cut from an over- sized block of granite twelve feet long, six feet high and eight feet wide. That's on the large side even for ROA, which is one of very few companies that can cut rock to these sizes. It manufactures memorials from the smallest plaques for cremated remains to family and community mausoleums and columbaria ( literally " dovecotes," but in this context, monuments furnished with niches for individual remains). Rock of Ages started out as a manufacturing and quarrying operation. In 1997 it launched into retail, a space it occupied until 2008, when it sold its retail outlets nationally and returned to its core business. Today it sells throughout North America through a network of authorized local dealers. As director of manufacturing operations, Rob Boulanger can purchase stone from any quarry in the world but buys a large proportion from ROA's separate Quarry division. " We have two quarry locations in Vermont, one in the Barre area where our main manufacturing facility is located, and one in Bethel. We also have a number of other quarries in the US and Canada." American Black comes from Pennsylvania, pink granite from Salisbury, North Carolina, and not far away another site yields Gardenia White. There are of course other markets than memorials for granite. ROA supplies stone for many iconic public buildings in the US and internationally. Manufacturing takes place at the main plant in Barre and a smaller operation in Stanstead, Quebec, specializing in smaller, more standardized products. However, customization is a hallmark of this business, since even simple headstones have to be engraved. The Barre operation has been streamlined, Boulanger says, to create the high- end monuments. Because of the customized nature of the product, ROA has to treat every job as unique. " Each job goes through a design- and- approval process, starting with a drawing that goes to our dealer, who presents it to the customer for approval; then it comes back to us for manufacturing." This approval process was a bottleneck; it could take the dealer weeks to get the customer back in to look at the design. About eight years ago, Boulanger and his team started to look for ways to cut down this time and at the same time make life easier for the customer. There were a number of technologies that could help, he says. " One of those, of July 09 www. bus- ex. com 11
12 www. bus- ex. com July 09 course, is email, which gets designs to customers much more quickly, but beyond that we've developed our own proprietary CAD software and designed it to be easy enough to use by someone without extensive CAD experience. Retailers can use it in their own premises and ideally get the approval from their customer right there, then email the design to us, and we can manufacture the product right away." The principle is exactly the same as in any other manufacturing environment. " We use the 3D modelling features of CAD/ CAM software for the design of our large buildings, and we can export many of the files we get from customers to our equipment," says Boulanger. " Most of our equipment is CNC capable, and we're taking advantage of that. Our whole philosophy has been to chase the bottlenecks all the way from the point of shipment back to design and eliminate them." It's been a two- pronged improvement initiative involving " Most of our equipment is CNC capable, and we're taking advantage of that. Our whole philosophy has been to chase the bottlenecks all the way from the point of shipment back to design and eliminate them" both software automation and hardware, he continues. " For example, we found some inefficiencies in the grinding and polishing process. We purchased new Thibault polishers and installed some very automated polishing lines that can run almost around the clock." Polishing and grinding creates the flawless surface on the granite, and it uses a lot of energy. The amount of grinding that has to be done depends on the quality of the cut face, so the next step was to look at the process whereby blocks are sawn into slabs. The slabs used to be cut with diamond- edged saw blades; however, these are giving way to continuous wire saws also using diamond as the cutting medium. " We purchased a ten- wire diamond saw from the stone processing equipment specialist, Pellegrini," says Boulanger. " With this we're able to saw out nine slabs at once, and the slabs are much more uniform. We don't have to grind as much as we did before."