A digital approach to the countertop trade

August 1, 2005
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When Marty Marra decided to open Capitol Granite Co., Inc. in Pittsburgh, PA, as a supplier and installer of granite countertops, his investments were not the typical roster of a bridge saw, edging machine and hand tools. Instead, he invested in electronic templating technology to digitally measure jobs for area contractors and kitchen and bath dealers. The data is then transmitted to a CNC fabrication plant in Canada, which fabricates the work and ships it back to the company for installation.

After attending a seminar in Pittsburgh, Marra - whose background is in general contracting - invested in ETemplate Photo from ETemplate System/Tri-Tech Solutions, Inc. of Raleigh, NC. The system features a calibrated digital camera that records all of the data needed to design, cut and install a kitchen countertop. The camera works in conjunction with the ETemplate PhotoCapture™ field measuring kit, Intelli-Mark™ markers, and scales. According to ETemplate System, there is no need for a tripod, and the technology produces digital template contours to within 1⁄32 inch.

After the data is recorded, ETemplate Photo exports the digital template in a DXF format that is compatible with any CAD/CAM output system that accepts the DXF format.

“It's a very simple business model,” Marra explained. “We get a fax of a kitchen layout, and we developed a spreadsheet where we enter the dimensions, and then we quickly have a quote to fax back to them. All of our stone is the same price, so we make it really easy for the customer. Very often, when a customer walks into a kitchen center, it can be very difficult to get a price, and we wanted to eliminate that.” Once a sketch is faxed to the company, a quote is often sent back in minutes, and the company guarantees a quote in eight business hours.

Once a job is approved, workers from Capitol Granite visit the site to record the needed data. “Basically, we go out and shoot the kitchen, and it's generally new construction. When we are setting up with the markers, the other [tradesmen] cannot believe what they are seeing. It's really 21st century stuff. I would not be in this business without ETemplate. They provided the answer for us.”

Typically, workers from Capitol Granite spend 20 minutes taking photos on the jobsite, plus whatever time is needed to meet with the homeowner or builder. The photos are then processed back at the office, and the necessary overhangs and cutout centerlines are added. “This usually takes around an hour per job, but we are getting faster,” Marra said. Manufacturer's sink templates are downloaded directly from the Internet and embedded in the file. Next, the company prints out the digital templates with all of the dimensions listed, and these are faxed back to the client to make sure all of the instructions have been properly followed. The customer also confirms the sink cutout before the data is transmitted to the CNC fabricator.

Once a job has been approved, the DXF file is e-mailed to Canada for fabrication. The fact that files can be e-mailed over the border has been a great help, given the post-9/11 delays in mail to Canada. Overall, Capitol Granite tries to limit its selection to 13 colors of granite, all of which are quarried in New England or Eastern Canada.

Marra has been working to ensure that the e-mailed file can be fed directly into the CNC machine, and the fabricator does not have to manipulate the data. “We want to make sure there is no extra work on their end,” he said. “We are sending them files that they simply look at and enter directly into the equipment. The file is read by the CNC equipment, and it produces exactly what is in the file. The resulting countertop can be tight against all walls with a perfect joint.”

During installation, Marra described the process as simply “putting together puzzle pieces. Because of the speed in transmitting information, there is no delay in turnaround time, even though the fabrication work is being done 700 miles away.” He added that an important factor in his work is dealing with a professional fabricator that understands how to utilize CNC equipment to its fullest capabilities.

The ETemplate Photo system is particularly adept at dealing with abnormalities on the site, according to Marra. “We place the markers where the worst conditions are, and this catches all of the irregularities of the site,” he said. “For example, there was one time where we had a wall with a large kink in it. We set the markers accordingly, and it was measured and cut to allow for that kink in the wall. When we got the finished countertop on site, the builder came over, and he thought it was crooked. Then we set it up on the cabinets and it fit perfectly right into the kink. He was really amazed.”

Marra said he began working with the program “right off the bat,” and it only took one or two kitchens to get the hang of using the system. “You learn which photo angles to take, and how to deal with a lot of 45-degree angles or inside corners,” he said. “If a kitchen is large enough, I'll divide it into halves or thirds, or if there is a refrigerator cabinet or wall in place, we can add markers there. There are up-and-down angles as well. You learn how to use the system, and it hasn't failed us yet.”

The images are loaded from the camera to the computer with a standard USB cable, and the project is bundled with the CAD Key program. “I was illiterate on CAD [beforehand], and after spending a day in training, it's pretty intuitive,” Marra said. “I am self-taught on it.”

Capitol Granite is still in its formative stages, as Marra has also continued his work as a general contractor. Currently, the company averages one or two kitchens per week, although it is planning to add to that total in the very near future.

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