August 1, 2008
Question: How are people templating their countertops these days? It seems more shops have gone digital, but it is not universal - even when people have CNC machines, waterjets, etc. For fabricators who are using digital templating systems, how long did it take for you to learn? Were your templating employees hesitant to make the change? Were there any mistakes or lessons to be learned? For folks who are templating manually, what are you using, and what has prevented you from making the switch to digital?
Eddie Blanco, Gemini Tile Service, Miami, FL: I am still templating manually. I use Luan strips hot glued together. We haven’t switched over to digital yet because of resistance from my partner (brother).
William White, Counter Solutions, Jackson TN: We started with an Outline Technologies digitizing board (which we still use), and now my templates are done using Faro arms. I also have a Proliner that we use in the shop and in the field.
The digitizing board was very easy to learn, but you still had to make hard templates in the field. The Faro arm took several days to get comfortable using it. You had to make sure you were doing things a certain way. The Proliner was very easy to learn, but as with every system, you have to learn to trust it and the person running it.
We still make a drawing and pull a tape just to double check ourselves. Also, we take plenty of photos.
My current templaters never had to make Luan or Coroplast (corrugated plastic) templates, so there was no hesitation to learning the digital systems.
Boyd McGuire, All Stone Granite, Tulsa, OK: We’re 100% digital. We use both a Laser Products LT-55 and a Proliner. Our usage is probably 80% LT-55 and 20% Proliner. The LT-55 does all the routine counters, while the Proliner does all the strange things like undermount tubs, wall niches, vertical shower walls, etc.
When we first started using the digital format, I knew a plotter was not a long-term answer for us. So, we got a laser from Carter Products to project the DXF files onto a fixed-height horizontal bed. This was because our sawing was still manual. So, we had to have a way to trace the DXF files onto the face of the stone. The accuracy was very consistent. Was there opposition to the switch? Isn’t there always opposition to something different? The answer is yes. But that faded fairly quickly.
As we incorporated the Northwood SawJet into our operations, the idea of anything but digital became absurd for us. Combined with the SawJet is SlabSmith, which requires digital DXFs, then to the CNCs. There is no way we could use a plotter or digitizer in our system; it would be way too slow. The Carter laser shifted to CNC #2 as a layout tool.
When you show up at a client’s house, and pull out either the Laser Products LT-55 or the Proliner, their eyes light up, and your credibility skyrockets.
From the time we show up at the jobsite to post-CNC, everything is in digital format.
The other thing both these systems do is allow you to customize your templates so the waterjet makes all the difficult cuts in the shop, and they don’t have to be done with a grinder in the field. Skewed back walls, notching around trim and semi-round art niches (and I do mean “semi”) are all cut with the waterjet, making installs a snap. Therefore, you are able to install more because the fit is so exact. (There are some occasions where you have to “dumb it down” a bit.)
Retraining was all phone-based. Both companies have proven to be helpful and responsive. It took a couple of days to become comfortable on each, although we had CNCs before we went digital so we knew the CAD functions already.
Dan Dauchess, Signature Stone, Williamsburg, VA: We used Luan strips and hot glue until about nine months ago. Since that time, we have been using a blended set of digital systems. Simple tops get drawn in CAD on my laptop in the clients house using a tape measure or laser rangefinder. Bump-outs and curves can be added to the drawing and reviewed with the customer immediately.
Complex tops have been made a lot easier by our recent purchase of a Laser Products LT-55 laser templating system. Multiple jogs, non-standard angles and walls that need tops scribed to them are confidently captured with the new system.
The combination of the two methods provides me confidence and speed in my measurements.
I started with the CAD drawings on the laptop. That took about two days to get used to because I was already doing hand drawings on graph paper. The LT-55 was a different story. I’ve been using it myself for around three months and feel much more confident with it. I started out doing every template two different ways and comparing the results. The more correct answers I got with the LT-55, the less I compared. Now I just spot check some diagonals and key dimensions to make sure nothing drastic happened.
As for convincing employees, I am the templating employee, so convincing me wasn’t hard. The challenge was training the shop to transition from hard templates to all drawings. They’ve gotten used to the new conventions, and things are going well.
Robert Carter, Albemarle Countertop Co., Charlottesville,VA: We are templating manually using 2-inch Luan strips and hot melt glue. We like having hard templates on hand to go back to after fabrication to check part sizes, seams, returns, etc.
I think the biggest reason we have not yet gone with a digital templating system is because I don’t feel it could/would be fully 100% implemented, and at that cost it needs to be.
We run a manual saw, line polisher and CNC, and I just can’t see the benefit with just a CNC in the shop. The templating is split up between two employees, and they can handle the load just fine. We hardly ever have any issues with stick templates themselves; the only issues are when the sawyer doesn’t cut on the line.
I do think, though, with a digital cutting solution in our shop along with our CNC, a digital templater would make perfect sense. We welcome that day.
Darryl Miller, Acoustical Specialties and Supply, Inc., Baton Rouge, LA: I am using a Laser Products LT-55 with an Allen Datagraph plotter. Although we are still cutting manually, I cannot fathom going back to stick templates. Kitchens that used to take me 2 ½ to 3 hours to stick template, I can do in less than 30 minutes. I have a completed DXF file when I leave the job.
I do all of my own templating. I was hesitant to change because I did not trust the systems on the market. Finally at StonExpo 2006, I looked at all the systems at the show. I made my choice based on ease of use and no CAD experience being necessary to use this system. It took me a couple of months to get comfortable with the system and to trust it. There is no way I would want to go back now. Some people think that plotting templates is a waste of time, but when you look at how much faster I can get my work done, it only makes sense to digital template - whether you are cutting digitally or not. I can see the advantage of the overhead laser, thus eliminating the templates, but I still like to have a physical template. Call me stuck in the past.
Chris Ash, Floyd Knobs, IN: We do about 1.5 kitchens per week. That being said, we use Luan and hot melt glue. With no interference from the homeowner, I can template a normal kitchen in less than 1 hour - more like 45 minutes on most. For us, it just doesn’t make any money for us yet, or even pay for itself. But I look forward to the day when we need it. Digital is the goal for sure.
Reuben Flax, Sinai Marble & Granite, Baltimore MD: We run the Laser Products LT-55 with a Graphtec vinyl plotter. We just sent the LT-55 to the factory to be upgraded to the new model that has the built-in camera and the ability to let the customer sign off on the template.
We’re an all-manual shop and started with strips of styrene plastic glued together - much the same way Luan is done, only you roll up the finished template, and it fits in a regular car.
The LT-55 is a great tool for digitizing complex two-dimensional work, but its best use is in renovation work where there is an existing countertop in place. It’s very easy to measure accurately without having to dismantle anything, and the new countertops usually slide right in.
Learning to use it was/is annoying and time consuming. You don’t necessarily need CAD experience, but we use AutoCAD to design when we get back to the office if there are unusual areas to be drawn. Creating an order or system when measuring with a digital templator is a great help because it’s very easy to forget something and waste a trip back to the site to re-measure.
The “wow” factor of measuring with a laser is a sure money maker. Customers love to brag that their kitchen was laser templated when comparing with the neighbors.
Clyde M. Kingry, Southside Granite Co., Dothan, AL: We compared digital templating solutions about three years ago and felt that the ETemplate System fit us best.
We learned very quickly how to use the system, but it took a while longer to learn to trust it for its full capability. There was actually more of a struggle with the setup and accuracy of the plotter that created the physical template than with the ETemplate System itself.
After switching to a CNC saw, which enabled us to skip the cutting of a physical template, accuracy of completed parts improved by leaps and bounds. First of all, you don’t have to cut the template and then cut the stone. You can go straight to the saw with the digital file, and the sawyer never has to line up on a physical template.
And then there is the CAD work that goes hand-in-hand with the digital templating technology. The good thing is that there is only a need for the most basic skills, commands and functions of a CAD program to complete this part of the process. Fortunately, we were able to catch on very quickly, since we already used Monu-Cad software to design memorials and prepare sandblasting stencils for them.
In terms of our employees making the change, some had their doubts, but most were actually very excited about entering the digital templating world and were eager to learn and test the system without hesitation.
First of all, we learned quickly to follow a precise and consistent step-by-step procedure on the jobsite for each project. Having a good checklist to follow each time aided us in learning the method as it became second nature. You want to prevent having to return to the jobsite to obtain that one vital detail that is so easy to forget.
One thing that took a little while to learn was how to correct or offset from the wall. This is just something that each company has to learn to work through. You don’t want to be too tight, and you have to be able to get the parts in place, especially between walls. I would say that this is where we made the most mistakes attributable to human error.
George M. Graff, Snake River Stone Inc., Nampa, ID: We use Luan strips cut to 2 ¼ inches and hot glued together - and sometimes Red Rosin Paper - for our templating. We have kicked around the idea of getting the Laser Products LT-55 and overhead laser for our Park Yukon bridge saw. Right now, it’s a money issue, and getting up to speed and confident with it. I see that the LT-55 would save time in the field, and we could use a more gas-friendly vehicle since we wouldn’t have to haul Luan templates around. But on the flip side, I still like to have hard templates to check pieces as they come off the saw.
Kent Potter, TK Custom Stone, Inc., St. Marys, GA: We have been using the ETemplate System for about four years now. The beginning stages of use were painful, as there were problems with accuracy from actual to what was templated. These issues, however, have been worked out in the follow-up revisions. For about two months, we did Luan strips and hot melt glue in conjunction with the ETemplate System until we were confident enough with accuracy.
Back when we first used it, we were a manual processing center, so minor errors would be injected by the plotter for hard templates and then again by the sawyer. Sometimes these errors would cancel each other out; just as many times they would not.
A significant benefit to the ETemplate System is the photographic record you have of the project, which has served us well when changes were made following templating.
Since going 100% digital, the accuracies are unbelievable, as well as time savings. There are some instances where ETemplate will not provide a template, such as in cramped conditions (what we like to call “Closet Kitchens or Bathrooms.”) In these situations, the Luan strips with hot melt glue are still used and then digitized on a Nemi digitizer board back at the shop.
Carmine Pantano, Frank’s Marble & Granite, LLC, Red Lion, PA: One of the best investments we made was going to a digital templating device. We are using the Proliner 8 Series and love it. I learned to use the Proliner in about one week. I taught my dad (64 years old) the second week, and he’s been doing the templates since without looking back. It’s nice not having splinters.
We plot all files to vinyl using the Allen Datagraph plotter. The sawyer had to get used to cutting to the vinyl instead of stick, but that went well, and now they like it better. Digital files are then prepped for CNC tool paths, and the CNC does the rest.
Scott McGourley, Kasco Stone, Tampa, FL: We are a manual saw operation. We recently started using the Laser Products LT-55 and a vinyl plotter, but we have since gone back to sticks. Plot vinyl templates is a frustrating, messy, expensive awful process, and any time saved on the job is lost two-fold when you consider cleaning them up in CAD and plotting templates. We do use it for weird shapes and large radius and bump-out work, but that is it.
If we are using the CNC on a job, we just digitize the stick templates or simply draw them in CAD using a tape measure and a pencil to make the DXF. We use 2 ¼-inch .06 styrene strips and PVC cleaner to melt them together. It works well, and they roll up nicely to fit in any vehicle. We buy the styrene from our local commercial plastics distributor.
My opinion is that if you are a manual operation, you really need a slab optimization software program and overhead laser to get any real benefit from digital templating. When we get our Breton FabCenter in October, it will be a 100% digital cutting solution. At that time, we will go back to digital templating, and physical templates of any kind will be a memory.
Darryl Miller, Acoustical Specialties and Supply, Inc., Baton Rouge, LA: Not to be argumentative, but plotting templates should not be a major time consumer. Yes, I had issues at first, but when I got everything set up right on my plotter, those issues went away. It only takes me about 30 minutes to plot my templates on most jobs. If I were spending 2 or 3 hours plotting templates, I would go back to stick templates as well. It is important to make sure your plotter is set up properly, and all of the speed and force settings are tweaked. My plotter runs better now than it ever has. Thanks in large part to Rich Luster, (a fellow SFA member) for sharing new speed and force settings for the program, I do not have to babysit the plotter or be concerned about someone distracting me while plotting. We have no problems with accuracy.
I would really hate to go back to sticks with the system working as well as it is now. There are several digital templating solutions available. No one system is right for everyone. You really have to research the systems to see which one will serve you best. The time savings for us have been tremendous.
Joshua Hopkins, Albemarle Glass Company Inc., Albemarle, NC: We use the Stealth 7200. The salesman went out on the first job with me, showed me how to use it, and it was that simple. I can template an average-sized kitchen in under 30 minutes - that includes pulling a tape for sketching a drawing on paper as well. I would hate to have to go back to stick templating again.
We tried out several digital templating systems out there, and they all have their pros and cons, but the Stealth was what we found that fit our needs.
Dustin Braudway, Cape Fear Marble and Tile, Inc., Wilmington, NC: We have been using the Laser Products LT-55 laser for a little over two years now. Our company is almost 100% digital (short a digital sawing system, which will be in place by years end).
The learning curve for the LT-55 at first wasn’t really all that hard. If you have some CAD experience and some confidence, you can learn how to use it.
Once you have the digital system, your biggest challenge will be trust. I have seen a lot of people that purchase digital systems and did not use them or made mistakes because they did not take the time to learn it correctly. It makes templating much faster, easy layouts with CAD, easy on-site design with the owners, etc.
Currently, we plot vinyl templates; by years end we will have a different system (slab optimization) to go along with our new digital cutting system. This will (hopefully) eliminate the slab layouts in the cold or hot weather with the customers.
We also do a lot of fabrication-only work for other countertop companies, and we actually take their templates and digitize them with our system. This makes it easy for us to upload DXF files to our CNC, and it is very accurate.
Matt Rickard, Laserline Templates LLC, Owensboro, KY: I offer a digital templating service to fabricators. My company uses the LT-55 from Laser Products for digitizing countertops. All my company does is template tops for other fabricators.
That being said, I don’t think I could have asked for a more simple tool to make my living with. The learning curve was very easy, and any problem I have encountered was fixed quickly by the Laser Products staff.
I would hate to think that I would ever have to go back to using sticks or plastic to do what I do now. I really think it would be impossible to have the accuracy and the quantity of work that I put out using manual templating.
A small amount of my job is turning the DXF into a shop drawing to compare square footage against the bid. Other than that, the parts could be cut directly from the DXF that is created on the jobsite.
Paul Michalec, Stone Shop Solutions, Galesville, MD: I’m doing strictly consulting within the industry now, and what I suggest to my clients depends strictly on the type of work they are performing and the technological status of the organization.
For instance, if a fabricator becomes convinced that this high-tech method of templating is the future, and they just have to get into it, but lack the ability to utilize CAD files in their manufacturing process, then I recommend to them that they stick to current manual methods of templating until their manufacturing infrastructure can support the DXF files for cutting, shaping, etc. If the shop doesn’t use CNCs or waterjets, then they will have to go through the additional efforts of translating the CAD files into a physical representation of the job for cutting/shaping, or they will have to fully draw the job on the slabs. One of the biggest financial challenges these guys go through is putting the cart before the horse, so to speak, and having to triple-spend making technology work.
I suggest physical templates for shops that do strictly custom, high-end work for a number of reasons. One, it gives the client the ability to “see” what the tops will look like from a geometric point of view, so integrating details, such as build-ups to trim work, can be troubleshot at the first template. Custom builders do not like signing off on something they can’t touch or see.
Mark Mihalik, Counterparts, LLC, Delaware: We are a manual shop and do Luan templates. I have worked with a few digital templating systems in the past, and the templates are only as good as the person running the CAD. I don’t see the point in changing until we get a CNC or some other digital machines. I do mostly custom work, and customers like to see full-scale patterns. I find the Luan foolproof, because if the tops don’t match the template, then they don’t work in the house. In the last year (doing four to five kitchens a week), I have not gone into a home where the tops have not fit properly.
Brian Briggs, Granite Guys, Inc., Ft. Pierce, FL: Currently, I am an all-manual shop with the exception of digital templating. Two years ago, we went from Luan templating to the Laser Products LT-55. I did not switch because of inaccurate templating; my stick templates were never off. I switched for speed reasons. When I was templating with stick templates, it would take me 2 hours to do a template job. That was consuming too much of my time, and all of my other functions were suffering (you know - owner, salesman, estimator, templater, etc.). Now, I can be in my office until 2 p.m., go template a couple of jobs and be home for dinner. On average, it takes me 30 minutes to template an average-sized kitchen. From there, I plot templates on my mylar plotter. This is done back at my office while I am wearing my other hats. Plotting and marking templates takes another 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the job.
As for mylar cost, it is the same (for me) as stick templating. I would use an average of three cut-up sheets per kitchen. Those three sheets cost me $21. I get three to four kitchens from a roll of mylar, and it costs $68 per roll, so my template material cost remains the same, my template time is cut in half, my field time is 25% of what it was and there are no more splinters and glue burns.
The only downside that I can see is that you will need to know or learn a little CAD. If you do not know CAD, it’s no big deal. The few functions required for countertops are easy to learn.
If you are buying a system, do yourself a favor; narrow down the options out there as to what best suits your needs. Then go to a fabricator running the system and hang out with their templater for the day. By going in the field with an end user, you can see how the system is truly used in the field by people that have their jobs or money on the line if there is a mistake. We have people come in all the time to template with me.
Ronald Hannah, Cadenza Granite & Marble, Concord, NC: “Templating” is the gathering of the information and details required to produce a countertop or other dimensional stone product. We went “digital” two years ago with our purchase of the LT-55 by Laser Products.
The learning curve was steep but short, and the results are phenomenal.
Our typical on-site time is somewhere in the order of 45 to 50 minutes per kitchen (average kitchen size of 75 square feet), and our accuracy/precision is over the top.
There are many good digital systems on the market, and we all started with some sort of manual system - be it “sticks” or “polystyrene sheets.” The more complete and exact the template, the more accurate the countertop. Any and all template systems, be they manual or digital, require a “protocol” in order for them to work. Anybody who has been to our shop knows that we are all about protocols. A system must be set up for the template person to follow in order to accurately gather the information and data required to successfully create perfect countertops.
Our protocol includes drawing a sketch of the proposed countertops, complete with all required dimensions. We then take digital photographs of all areas and special details. We then set-up our LT-55 and “shoot the job.” If the job is especially complicated, we will pick up the LT-55 tripod and move it 3 to 4 feet and re-shoot just for insurance.
Provided that the protocol is followed, the template procedure will never fail. Creating and implementing the protocol is the easy part. Ensuring that it is followed to the letter has proven to be the bigger challenge.
Kevin M. Padden, AZ Stone Consulting, Pinal County, AZ: We teach both manual and electronic templating methods at the AZ School of Rock. As many of our students are new start-up shops, they need to know how to do manual templating, and we teach using Luan strips. We have been using the Laser Product LT-55 to do digital templating, and it has performed flawlessly for us. Our students pick up the basics of the system in a matter of an hour or so, and can template with the LT-55 the same day.
Another thing that is just as important - when templating manually or digitally - is having a complete information pack that the templater can use in carrying out his or her mission.
We use a set of checklists and sign-offs that help take any guesswork out of the equation - thus eliminating error potential.
Joe Durfee, Great Lakes Granite & Marble, Redford, MI: We use both the Proliner and plastic strips glued together. The Proliner has become invaluable to us for templating the odd places such as swimming pool surrounds, very large buffet tops and any other radius work that requires cutting cardboard.
We still use a Nemi digitizing board to digitize templates for our SawJet and CNC. It has been our experience that both methods take about the same amount of time on regular kitchen work (Proliner versus making templates and digitizing them).
Darryl Miller, Acoustical Specialties and Supply, Inc., Baton Rouge, LA: Excellent points made by Ron and Kevin about protocol and checklists. Another point that Kevin mentioned was about teaching them first to “stick” template. I do think that you should know how to accurately build manual templates before attempting to go digital. Manual templating teaches you so much about making sure your overhangs are correct and knowing if you can get a certain piece of stone into a tight opening in one piece.