Engineered marble plant : a guided tour

Visiting an engineered marble ( cultured marble ) plant will surely help you understand the product a little better. I've described in prior posts the engineered marble (cultured marble) production process (Breton block plant).
I've also referred to cultured marble in this post as many, especially in North America, use this term - cultured marble - to define engineered marble, my intention is not to confuse my readers so I will include both terms. In truth when I refer to engineered marble, I'm referring to a product which is made with polyester resin bonding and using Breton technology, it's high quality cultured marble.
So this post will be a guided tour through an engineered marble (cultured marble) plant, as in every industry our production inputs will be mainly raw materials. The whole production process of engineered marble can be divided as follows:
  1. Engineered marble block fabricating unit
  2. Staging
  3. Sawing the engineered marble block
  4. Engineered Marble Surfacing
  5. Slab or tile fabrication
    1. Engineered marble block fabrication unit

     This is the heart of the whole engineered marble business. This unique production unit is responsible for combining all the ingredients accordingly and thoroughly mixing them. The main raw materials used in producing engineered marble is marble chips (several sizes), marble dust, resin, and coloring pigments.
    A block can weigh more than 7 tons, so accordingly each block will need that much quantity of raw materials. If we add a 30 minute production cycle for each block and a 2 shift day we are looking at more than 30 blocks, which is equivalent to 210 tons of raw materials per day. That's more than 8 truck loads of raw materials arriving daily.
    So factories need a nice and well balanced warehousing for all these different types of materials. Many textures are made with the mix of more than one raw material, it's just like baking a 7 ton cake. And to guarantee the same exact textures in the whole lot, well everything has to be done precisely the same way, and maintaining the same momentum. What does this mean? Mixing the ingredients has to be made at the same moment, if you exchange order between blocks you might end up with a slightly different shade.
     So on the right you'll see a photo of exterior silos these usually are used with micronized dust and small marble chips.
    In the inside of the plant you'll find another feeding unit for raw materials, being a mixture of several types of grit sizes and types, each one of these storage units will be synchronized by the main computer which will load the exact quantities necessary as per the formula for each type of product.
    Every time Research and Development creates a new product, the production manager will have to industrialize it, which may mean new warehousing and feeding facilities.
    I do know that some factories do feed manually some of the raw materials needed, however the human error factor is great and shade differences may occur due to the human factor.
    I guess we are ready to pass on to the next phase in production. Which is the forming of the block.

     I've done some labelling on the photo to help you visualize the process. In A you'll find the control tower, here is where the machine is controlled, it may also control all the conveyor feeding and weighing system. The machine needs a lot of inputs regarding the production of each color, mixture speed, timing, discharge timing, vacuum pump activity, vibrocompressing, etc. are in most cases specific to each type of product.
    B is the entrance for all raw materials, you'll see a conveyor belt for the bigger chips, a screw conveyor is also visible, it falls into a automatic scale (looks like an inverted cone), the resin comes in a small tube which may not be visible and is in a waiting area before discharge.
    D shows the mixer, it has horizontal shaft with arms that are in constant movement, in a few minutes the whole 7 tons will be effectively mixed together. The block plant in the photo is not the current Breton version, as the new Breton plant uses vertical mixers, so above the block machine you'll have a 3/4 floor high area for the mixing.
    The (C) clean molds go in the back end of the block machine (G), although I think their might be a front end machine installed. This front end, will have a higher production cycle, but maybe due to space or some other reason, has made them invest on such machine. The most effective machines are like the one in the photo, empty mold in on one end, and block out the other end.
     The mold goes in through the G area, stops underneath the mixer, where it does a back and forward movement to help distribute the mix correctly. Then follows to point F, all these movements and even the mixing is done in a vacuum chamber, this is essential to guarantee a high quality product. The vibro compression unit has 6 engines, they basically vibrate and compact the block during several minutes. If you work at the factory you'll feel the floor vibrate, feels like a little earth quake.
    The chemical process initiates when the resin is staging waiting for discharge into the mixer, the hardening process takes about 2 hours. After this period the molds can be disarmed, the point I in the picture is exactly this. You will see some blocks in the molds and other with the molds dismantled.

     2. Staging

    A few hours later, the block hardens and can be moved into storage. The storage time for a block is equivalent to the time it needs to solidify completely. This may vary, due to the type of product and temperature. In the summer staging is quicker, in the winter it tends to be slower, the best situation would be warehousing and making the block in a controlled environment, which not every plant has. Due to the quantity of space these blocks may occupy, sometimes they will be warehoused and stacked outside.

    3. Sawing the Engineered Marble Block

    After the block is sufficiently cured, and as soon as the blocks are needed to comply with production needs, they will be sawn. They are normally sawn using either horizontal gangsaws or vertical gangsaws. The horizontal gangsaws are the ones most of you normally have or have seen, the block sits still and the diamond blades move and cut the block into slabs.
    The vertical gangsaws are specific to the engineered stone production namely the block plants. Since all blocks are rectangular and have the same size, the diamond blades maintain a vertical movement, while the block moves through them. Before the block is sawn it's calibrated on the sides to guarantee a perfect cut, being the block which does the movement, it has to move perfectly straight, any deviation will cause warped slabs. The vertical cutting is very precise, 10 mm slabs is really easy to do with vertical saws and very little breakage.
    The vertical saws are relatively quick in 5 hours you'll have a 3 m long block cut into slabs.

    4. Engineered Marble Surfacing

    From this point on, it's very similar to natural marble. Although engineered marble has tough tolerances to comply with due to CE Markings, which implies a precision calibrator and a lot of quality control mechanisms.
    You'll have a slab loader at the begining of the line, and as the slabs are all rectangular and similar, Breton has a very quick horizontal slab loader which guarantees top performances to a surface finishing line.
    The next phase will be the calibrating of the slab, while in a engineered quartz production plant calibration is made on both surfaces of the slab, the engineered marble plant normally just calibrates one surface.
    Resining lines are part of the surface finishing line, although it only applies to the traditional range of material, the one that uses big chips. These materials have big pieces of natural marble on the surface, and many natural marbles have to be resined, so the same applies to engineered marble. When we deal with micro chip textures, the process is direct from the calibrator to the polisher, no resining needed as their are no pours.
    The polisher is normally a Frankfurt type, the more polishing heads the better, the speed of these types of lines can go over 4/5 linear meters per minute, which gives you a good daily output compared to the traditional marble industry.

    5. Slab or Tile Fabrication

    Right after the polishing unit, you'll have polished slabs extracted from the production line. Many production lines will have a slab extraction point before the tile cutting and packing plant, which makes everything a lot more efficient.
    The extraction of slabs are normally made by vacuum activated robots (JOT) . However due to the velocity of the production line which can be superior to the JOT cycle, some factories have an intermediate warehousing unit or a branched out slab packing line. The slabs are classified with visual inspection an separated accordingly at this point.
    The slabs that continue to the tile plant will be cut with automatic multi disc cutting machines, first vertically, and after horizontally.

    After cutting is made the engineered marble tile, will be bevelled on all 4 sides, just before visual inspection and packing.


      Cultured Marble : Is there any way out for the Breton engineered marble plants?

      Engineered marble or cultured marble as many call it, has been living a severe crisis since 2008. In truth while the engineered quartz production plants are almost back to normal production, the engineered marble or cultured marble plants are still in a deep crisis. When I refer to engineered marble, cultured marble, I'm referring to polyester resin based materials which use block technology.
      In fact, their are several issues regarding this product, basically they are at a strategic point trying to re-think production to make the whole investment viable. Some of the European companies which use Breton Block technology are in deep crisis and fighting for survival. In the last few years Breton has sold more slab production lines than block production lines, nevertheless the block production lines produced in the last few years  most of them were installed in China.
      In Europe the main cultured marble producers that use Breton technology are:
      • Quarella - Italy
      Quarella is the biggest composite stone producer in the world, as they claim, and I figure they might have reason to make such claim. They have a few block production plants and have suffered seriously with the crisis. They export to almost every country in the World, and have been practicing very aggressive pricing in Asia.
      They have created a product which uses the block technology, it's an evolution series which has given the product a greater superficial hardness. The Evo series was launched last year, and is a strategic solution for the decrease in market share in the cultured marble sector.
      • Rover - Italy
      Rover is a Quarella group company, they mainly produce engineered marble products, however they do offer a limited number of colours in engineered quartz, they call it the Borea line. 
      • Marmol Compac - Spain
      Marmol Compac or Compac Mable, as they had to re do the naming of their whole brand, they used to call themselves Marmol Compac, although with the engineered quartz plant project, it made it difficult to market both products using the same brand. So they have spent the last few years defining their brand strategy and exchanging/renewing all marketing material they had.
      Anyway, Marmol Compac has bought land near Baza, southern part of Spain to install a new Breton Block plant. Nevertheless the current crisis on engineered marble has slowed or literaly stopped that project.
      Marmol Compac has survived thanks to the engineered quartz plant, if it was not for that I believe that they would no longer exist, or maintain a major producer status. They have shifted most of their excess personnel from Spain (engineered marble plant) to Portugal (engineered quartz plant). They've dedicated most of their resources in the last few years promoting and developing engineered quartz products, leaving the engineered marble in stand-by waiting for better days to return. In a lunch meeting a few weeks ago, a friend told me that they have recongnized that the engineered marble has been left behind, and 2011 they'll be dedicating more resources to the engineered marble products. So I guess we may have some new engineered marble products in 2011.
      • Santa Margherita -  Italy
      Santa Margherita, is one of the most technically evolved engineered stone plants in the World, it's Breton major partner. Besides being present in both engineered marble and engineered quartz markets, they seem to have survived with less sacrifice the engineered marble crisis. I guess due to the fact that they are smaller than the direct competition, and due to their well established marketing network.
      • Agglonord - Italy
      Agglonord mainly produces engineered marble blocks, they outsource all the other parts of the business. They use the old Breton technology, and have some quality problems due to that. The founder of Agglonord was Mr. Quarella, the same founder of Quarella. A few years ago he sold Quarella and established himself again in the sector, although besides being one of the brightest minds in the industry, Agglonord still lack some quality standards, mostly due to the fact that the old Breton technology is less effective when producing fine grain products. Personally I admire Mr. Quarella, unfortunately I never met him, but had a chance to meet his daughter, to whom I expressed this feeling. It's important to have recognition for great accomplishments and I think that their are a few people who really did something for this Industry in the past. We should not forget that engineered stone today has a stronger brand than it did 30 years ago, marketing these products back then was a very difficult thing, they had to deal with a mentality that had established natural products as a natural stone solution.
      • RMC- Portugal
      I was sad to know that RMC is going through a tough stage. They are the smallest in production, although they've created a few products which have marked positively their effort. I've received information that they are going through a deep crisis in sales. I hope they can re-create their whole production process, the European Industry needs as many producers as possible.

      Why is cultured stone loosing market share?
      • Chinese competition
      In Asia in the last 10 years many engineered marble plants have been set up, few with Breton technology and many with Chinese technology. The Chinese market is big, but we continue to see many Chinese engineered marble and engineered quartz arriving to the European market. The quality may not be as good, but in general they are capable of selling similar products in Europe at a lower price. So European companies are reaching out to creativity to block Chinese competition in the European market, although I doubt they'll succeed, the Chinese have proven in several other markets that they can overcome barriers.
      • New products with competitive price
      While engineered stone in general are increasing in price, due to raw material costs which have been sky rocket in the last 6/7 months, other products like porcelain tiles are arriving to the European market at very low prices. The market today has many options, and most of them tend to be competitive in pricing. 
      • Similar textures with more resistance
      More substitute products are being used, the washroom vanity top industry is being invaded by whole ceramic piece units, vanity and wash basin in one piece. The tile industry, has been overcome by ceramic, porcelain, natural granite, and other products. Even engineered quartz is sometimes looked at as an alternative to engineered marble, as it is similar in texture, but much more resitant.

      • Colour trend
      The colour trend which has occured constantly has also done some damage to the engineered marble, dark colours, minimal designs, etc, etc... have come and gone in the last few years. We all know that, engineered marble has great difficulty in producing acceptable products in dark colours. The difficulty to manufacture them is equal to its application problems, flooring is out of the question, unless you have a maintenance crew constantly working. So basically, the light colour has been the main stream of textures.
      Most companies have tried make a pure white colour, which you can easily find in Chinese producers, but have little traffic resistance. The solution for this type of products would be hardening the surface and making more resistant material, I guess maybe Quarella is on the right track, the rest should just follow and innovate on the way.