Hand-crafted precision in China

June 4, 2003
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Located outside of Beijing, China, P & L's stone manufacturing plant for slate and quartzite has the same sights and sounds of a typical stoneworking operation. But moving away from the din of the saws and calibrating machines, a visitor can experience the real heart of the production process -- which is the artisans who quietly and efficiently ply the craft of assembling mosaics with painstaking accuracy.

The factory is owned by Jack Lee, who grew up in Beijing and now operates P & L Marble out of Farmingdale, NY. Lee originally worked as an importer in Long Island, New York, for 15 years, and eventually began a manufacturing operation in China in the early 1990s.

The slate and quartzite operation employs a total of 80 people, with two shifts in place. And while it only produced slate and quartzite tiles at first, it expanded to also produce mosaics around two years ago.

The machinery used for processing stone is fairly straightforward, including many manual saws and calibrating machines. Lee explained that careful calibration, dimensions and color selection of the tiles and mosaics are essential to meet the high quality standards of the U.S. market, the company's principal export target.

Most of the tiles are honed, and they are available in a variety of sizes. The mosaics feature even more variety, as they are produced in a broad range of styles, patterns and combinations. To create an Old World look on any of its products, P & L also operates a tumbler on its premises.

One key to high-quality mosaic production is starting with the right raw materials, Lee explained. The process cannot be done with "waste" or "scrap" tile, as everything has to be precisely calibrated before being cut into mosaic pieces, he said.

Once the mosaic pieces are cut, they are stored in large quantities in a stockyard adjacent to the assembly area. Lee described the assembly of the mosaics as a very "labor-intensive" process that requires great concentration and skill by the workers. Another step to ensure quality is to use metal molds for the mosaics, as opposed to plastic, which he said provides greater precision.

Quality control is a major focus for the company, as all tiles and mosaics are inspected before being deemed suitable for shipping. "It's not high-tech," Lee said. "Everything depends on being organized with high quality control and keeping everything clean."

P & L produces five to eight con-tainers of mosaics per month as well as 20 containers of calibrated tiles. In all, approximately 60 to 70% of products go to the U.S. market, with some production also being consumed by Europe and the domestic market. Exports are shipped from the Tianjin port, located 80 miles away.

The company sells its production to building supply stores, and its also supplies stone for specific projects. It has also fabricated some custom stonework, including material for high-end residences owned by singers, actors and athletes. For these custom projects -- which are sold through wholesalers -- the company also has a Ghines edging machine and an Omag stoneworking machine from Italy.

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