Moving into natural stone

April 1, 2005
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For years, East Coast Associates of Fredericksburg, VA, operated as a successful manufacturer of laminate and other manmade countertops. And over time, the company began working with DuPont Corian solid surfaces and DuPont Zodiaq quartz surfacing. It was the move to Zodiaq quartz surfacing that ultimately led the company to start its own stone fabrication shop in July

of 2004.

The shop's workload is now a combination of quartz surfacing and natural stone, and it is equipped with equipment from Marmoelettromeccanica of Italy, supplied by Regent Stone Products of Virginia Beach, VA.

The main piece of equipment is a Marmoelettromeccanica Robotop CNC stoneworking center, which can execute complex edges and shapes and runs on four axes, three of which are automatic and one that runs with an inclination device. Learning the machine required two weeks of training at Regent's facility in Virginia Beach, and another week in house. “Knowing how to work with files and having a good memory are the keys to using the CNC machine,” explained Wade Nairn of East Coast Associates. “It was more difficult to learn the CAD/CAM program than actually using the CNC machine. The fabrication portion was a lot of hands on practice and trial and error, but we kept at it and every top got easier and better quality. We use the CNC for new home construction, commercial work and some remodeling.”

In starting a stone fabrication shop, Nairn explained that the workers were able to draw from some of their experience in other materials - such as creating templates - but he added that this was only a small portion of what needed to be studied. “Knowing the basics of how to make a countertop helped somewhat, however, stone fabrication is a whole different world, and we had to learn from scratch,” he said.

Templates are done manually with cardboard or transparent corrugated plastic. “We then scan the template and it is programmed into the CNC,” Nairn said. “The CNC machine is programmed through digitizing or drawings done in the CAD/CAM program. Files can also be downloaded from the Internet and sent to the CAD/CAM program. When a scan or drawing is made and a tool path assigned, it must be sent or outputted to the router files as a numerical code. The numerical codes are automatically assigned by the CAD/CAM program. They are put into folders just like any file system, and they are assessed on the CNC hand control unit and the jobs can be run at that time.”

Prior to fabrication, a personal computer can demonstrate two-dimensional simulation of the machine's activities, including the sequence of movement and tool changing. The machine holds 25 tools that are changed automatically. Before being processed on the CNC machine, slabs are cut to size on a Marmoelettromeccanica America 3600 bridge saw, also purchased from Regent Stone Products. This saw features a 20-horsepower, direct-drive saw motor, and also includes motorized X, Y and Z movements. The maximum size of the slabs to be cut is 12 feet x 6 feet, 6 inches, and the blade can tilt to an angle of 45 degrees.

A total of eight people work for East Coast Associates' stone division, and workers are pulled from other areas as needed for loading, delivering and other activities. “The biggest challenge was moving into stone fabrication with people experienced in only solid surface and laminate,” Nairn explained. “We had to send people to training, several at a time, and still keep up with our current operation. Additionally we had to move our entire operation into a larger facility. All of this made our learning process a little longer than I expected, and our mistakes a few more than I wanted. But in the long run, it worked out, and now I would put my stone fabricators up against anyone in the field with regards to quality and dedication.”

The company is currently averaging five kitchens per week, and the work is on a large scale at 90 square feet per kitchen. It works with some of the larger builders in the area, such as Toll Brothers and Richmond American. “We are also in the process of hiring four additional people, as we have signed two new contracts for granite,” Nairn said.

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