State-of-the-art product expansion in Minnesota
February 1, 2010
For Bruce Akins, owner of Innovative Surfaces of Hastings, MN, the transition from laminate countertops to stone fabrication was nearly 30 years in the making. And when the company decided to make the expansion into natural stone and quartz surfacing, it did so with the latest generation of stoneworking technology.
“I personally started in the countertop business in 1974 working for a laminate fabricator,” Akins explained. “In 1988, I started my own business and went from laminate fabrication to solid surface fabrication. In the late 1990s, we began installing quartz products, but outsourced the fabrication. We started fabricating our own natural stone and quartz products in 2003.”
From the very beginning, Innovative Surfaces processed stone with the latest equipment from Park Industries of St. Cloud, MN, including a Wizard radial arm polisher, a Pro-Edge automated edging machine, a Destiny CNC stoneworking center and a Yukon bridge saw. “We did some basic research on stone making equipment and realized we didn’t have much knowledge about stone fabrication,” Akins said. “We really felt comfortable with the people from Park Industries, and liked the close proximity to a local Minnesota company. With this large capital investment, service was a key factor for the purchase, and we felt Park Industries would perform.”
As the company’s business grew, it added a second Destiny CNC stoneworking center as well as a Park Industries Titan CNC stoneworking center and a Park Industries Fastback edging machine. Innovative Surfaces also invested in some of the newest technology from Park Industries, including the Fusion 6000 combination bridge saw/waterjet and the Pathfinder laser layout-projection workstation. Akins said that these latest investments have added a new level of efficiency to the operation. “The Fusion has been great. We’ve had a lot better material utilization and it has relieved some time on our CNCs,” he said. “We have more machining time available on our CNCs. We bought the Pathfinder at the same time, so all slabs are photographed and laid out prior to being cut.”
Using a DXF file, the Pathfinder projects a laser on the slab, and the projected image can be moved over the portion of the stone to be used and adjusted to achieve optimal production. This also allows them to visualize how the finished countertop will look before cutting, and this visualization can be sent electronically to the customer to approve.
“Our business is wholesale, so clients of our customers come to us after we’ve taken photos of the slabs, and view the photos and slabs for layout approval,” Akins explained. “It’s nice to be able to view and manipulate the pieces prior to cutting.”
Despite the sophistication of the technology, Akins said that the learning curve was not daunting. “There was a learning curve with the new technology, but it wasn’t real difficult. It’s a great service to be able to show the layout on the slab. It gives the customer a lot better comfort level. We can manipulate the CAD drawing on the slab, so the customer can see the grain layout and how the seams can look. Natural stone is an emotional purchase, so some customers really get involved with the layout. It’s been very beneficial with the exotic stones.”
Water used during the fabrication process is treated using an EnviroSystem from Water Treatment Technologies of Hampton, NH. “We started in 2003 with Water Treatment Technologies, and we upgraded the system a couple of years ago,” Akins said. “When we started in 2003, we were maybe doing three kitchens per day, and we peaked at 10 to 12 kitchens per day.”
More recent investments include a Fusion 6000 combination bridge saw/waterjet from Park Industries.
When bringing in new employees, Innovative Surfaces generally educates workers from the ground up. “We do our own training, and we typically don’t bring in machine operators,” Akins said. “We want people to understand hand finishing and our expectations of the finished product first before they become a machine operator. In our area, there aren’t a lot of people who run equipment looking for work.”
The client base at Innovative Surfaces is primarily comprised of retailers, kitchen and bath dealers, remodelers, contractors and commercial millwork shops. Akins described the current business climate as “soft” in terms of sales. “It hasn’t gone away, but it is challenging,” he said. “There is some work out there. Our quoting activity has picked up, but it hasn’t related to sales yet. That’s just part of the current economy. People are getting ready to do projects, but they’re not quite ready to pull the trigger yet. We’re hoping it’s a sign of what’s coming down the road.”
Given the overall decline in the marketplace, Innovative Surfaces is focusing on ensuring its business is as proficient as possible. “We are really trying to stay on top of costs and being as efficient as we can for anything related to overhead, whether it’s shop expenses, truck maintenance or other costs.”
As testament to the company’s dedication to quality, it is among the first group of fabricators in the nation to receive accreditation from the Marble Institute of America (MIA). This distinction is reserved for residential-oriented companies that have been in business a minimum of three years, have successfully completed 200 projects in those three years, have 2,000 square feet of dedicated fabrication space and have passed a voluntary or mandatory OSHA facility inspection in the previous year, among a host of other standards.
Sidebar: Innovative SurfacesHastings, MN
Type of work: residential kitchens (65%) and commercial work (35%) in natural stone, quartz surfacing and other materials
Machinery: Wizard radial arm polisher, Pro-Edge automated edging machine, two Destiny CNC stoneworking centers, Yukon bridge saw, Titan CNC stoneworking center, Fastback edging machine and Pathfinder laser layout-projection workstation, all from Park Industries of St. Cloud, MN; EnviroSystem from Water Treatment Technologies of Hampton, NH
Number of Employees: 65, including 30 employees dedicated to stone and quartz surfacing
Production Capacity: 10 to 12 kitchens per day, in addition to commercial work
Sidebar: The Artisan GroupInnovative Surfaces is part of the Artisan Group, a national organization of 36 independent granite fabricators that have joined together to offer the Artisan Stone Collection, the first and only brand of granite wholly owned by Artisan Group, which has a comprehensive lifetime warranty. The group also offers Heritage Wood countertops and Kohler sinks and faucets.
Group members average more than 20 years of fabrication experience in the countertop industry. Moreover, all Artisan Group members have achieved - or have begun the process to achieve - full accreditation with the Marble Institute of America. The group is among the first granite fabricators in the world to be working towards this distinction. Collectively, they surpassed $250 million in sales in 2008.
Artisan Group also provides a complete line of granite care products including: Firstline Sealer, Firstline Clean & Restore and Firstline Shine.
“When we started buying stone, we got involved with AG&M Granite of Austin, TX, and became involved in the Artisan Group,” explained Bruce Akins of Innovative Surfaces. “It’s nice brand recognition. We think it’s elevated the brand awareness of granite to the point where it isn’t so generic. It has taken away some of the commodity image, and we hope people look at it differently.”
Additionally, Akins said he is able to rely on the collective experience of the group’s members from a practical perspective. “It’s a great group of people to speak with and share information,” he said. “There’s really a wealth of knowledge there.”