Over the past few years, natural stone fabricators have become a very integral part of the Coverings exhibition, which took place in Orlando, FL, from March 24 to 27. The event's "Vision 2003" series of education sessions featured a broad range of topics that were of interest to today's fabricators. On the opening day of the event, Stone World hosted a "Fabricators Forum," where fabricators from around the country were on hand to candidly share their experiences in the business.

The session, which was attended by over 80 fabricators from shops of all sizes, focused on a broad range of topics, including CNC technology, installation, templating, safety and even bookkeeping. The following is a synopsis of the topics discussed at the Fabricators Forum and the general feelings of the fabricators who were present at the event.

Q: What is the extent of automated equipment in your shop? Have you found the expense to be worth it?
Generally speaking, the fabricators participating in the forum were mixed on the degree of computerized machinery present in their operations. While virtually all of the participants reported an interest in CNC technology, many still did not operate this type of machinery in their shops. One fabricator who fabricates work for the New Orleans and Panama City, FL, area said he fabricates 40 to 50 kitchens a week with no CNC technology. His equipment includes three line polishers and two bridge saws, and he has a total of seven installation teams.

Those fabricators who did report using CNC technology said they "found it to be more than worth the investment." "We thought we might have a challenge, but it has [accomplished] more than we could have imagined," stated one fabricator. Fabricators who responded typically fabricated between 7 and 10 kitchens per week, and revenue was reported to be around $5,000 to $6,000 per kitchen fabricated.

Of those who invested in CNC machinery, none of the participants reported that it took a long period of time to "grow into" the equipment from a business standpoint. In general, once the machine was up and running, it was in use at all times. One operator reported that annual sales were just under $1 million before operating the CNC machinery, but that they quickly surpassed that mark. "In a little 2,000-square-foot shop, we are doing 2,500 to 3,000 square feet per month," said one user of CNC technology. Another company stated that they were already using one CNC machine from Z. Bavelloni, and they had another machine on the way.

As far as operation of the machine, the CNC users at the forum reported that multiple users are able to work the computerized equipment, although they also noted that there is typically one worker who is the primary operator of the machine. "If he is down, the machine is down," said one fabricator. As a result, many of the shops said that everyone takes vacation at the same time.

The fabricators who spoke at the forum also noted that learning the equipment is not as much of a challenge as it used to be. "Six years ago, it was new and a little challenging to learn," said one fabricator. "Now it's a no-brainer." Another stated: "Our guys have been doing it awhile, and so now it can be set up pretty easily and quickly." One challenge with the workers was that they sometimes "psychologically don't think production can be doubled," one user explained. "People need to see that it can be done."

According to the fabricators at the roundtable, the greatest benefit of CNC technology is increased production, with reports of the machinery being able to cut and profile a piece in less than an hour. "We recently went to CNC, and for the last nine years we had been doing everything by hand," said one fabricator. "Our machine, if we push it, can cut, polish and do sinkholes on two kitchens a day easily," said another.

Q: What are the ways in which shops are handling their water recycling?
Most of the fabricators who commented said they are using a standard bag filtration system, including one participant who had just established a new 5,000-square-foot shop and was using a clear air filtration system with overhead fans. Another reported that the only fresh water used at the shop is what goes through the spindle of the CNC machine.

Q: What is the best and fastest way to cut and polish sinkholes without the use of CNC or waterjet?
The first response to this topic was to "be really quick on the draw" by making sure to remove large chunks of material as quickly as possible. Another fabricator explained that his firm has actually begun selling sinks to end users. This way, he is able to store an inventory of templates that will correspond to the exact sinks that will be used in the final applications. He added that the profit margin on the sale of sinks was fairly attractive.

Q: What is the best product to make hard templates?
The first fabricator who responded to this topic reported using a product called UHMW, a very hard plastic material that is also used for marine purposes as well a variety of other applications in the manufacturing industry. Other popular choices included wood and cardboard.

However, many of the fabricators reported that there are difficulties in templating that go beyond the material for the templates. "One problem we have in our shop is to make sure the customer/builder has the necessary things in place [at the job site] when we go to make the template. It's a huge problem for us, because it can throw the whole schedule off [if they cannot measure properly]." One fabricator said they will add a separate "trip charge" in these instances, but others felt that this could cause a dispute with the customer.

Overall, the fabricators felt that educating the customer was paramount in ensuring the success of a job. "We have to educate the customer and ask what they have, and then we take pictures [of the job site] so we have them on hand," said one participant.

And before doing the installation, fabricators said that advance communication with the customer or the builder is critical. "We call ahead of time before we go out and do the installation to be sure that we're not going to get there and find out someone is painting or something like that."

Q: Should templating and installation costs be included in the contracted price at a fixed amount, or should they be charged separately as extras (hourly rates)?
Fabricators were somewhat split on this issue, and their responses tended to vary based on the presumed tax laws of the states they worked within. "For tax purposes, we are selling a finished product, so we include [templating] in the final price, and we tax that," stated one fabricator. Another fabricator reported that their accountant wanted them to break down the final price -- with 80% as the finished product (which is taxable), and 20% as templating and installation (which is not taxed).

But even the state tax laws themselves seem to be a "gray area" for fabricators, with no clear regulations on what can be taxed and what cannot. "[The tax legislators] really don't give you a way to cover yourselves, but then they can come after you when they want to," said one fabricator. As a result, several fabricators said they would prefer to charge the tax for everything rather than face a tax audit down the road.

Q: Are rods necessary around cut-outs?
The fabricators who answered this question were virtually unanimous that it was necessary to rod. However, fabricators were not as consistent with the material used for rodding. While many use regular steel products, a fabricator at another session pointed out that these can eventually rust, causing discoloration on the surface of the stone over time. He said that the use of stainless steel rods are critical to avoid this situation.

Q: What kind of safety measures do people take so that when moving materials, a slab does not fall and injure employees?
The initial response to this question was by a fabricator who had a fatal accident at his facility in November of 2002. He explained that the worker had accidentally pulled the slab onto himself. "It happened in the yard. We have a rule of two men on a slab, and he didn't follow that policy. There really needs to be some kind of safety device developed. A policy of having two guys on a slab is not enough."

A total of 500 slabs are stored at the facility, mostly on A-frames. "I find that the racks can be more dangerous than A-frames," the fabricator said. "The Marble Institute of America says that you should use two men, with one on each side and not in the middle, and that's what we follow. But I would like everyone to keep their minds on [developing a new safety device], and maybe we can come up with something."

Other fabricators agreed that slab handling can be a treacherous task, particularly when the workers don't follow the company policies. "You can't idiot-proof the situation, and you can't avoid every situation," said one fabricator. "You just have to educate your workers in the best way possible."

One company said they had three near-fatal slab falls in their shop, and each could be attributed to people not following procedures and employees not thinking about what they are doing. "One guy tried to pull two slabs out by himself," he said.

A suggested solution to this was to carefully monitor the temperament of each employee in the shop and to continually remind them of the rules. "If he starts to get carried away, you can warn him, and if it keeps happening, then you let him go," said one fabricator. "It's like good drivers and bad drivers. Some guys are emotional and hot-headed. With other guys, nothing bothers them. That is the kind of guy you want around."

Ultimately, the fabricators felt that it is the responsibility of the owner to maintain a safety program in the shop. "You have to keep an eye on your workers. I have let people go for [not following safety procedures.]." Several companies reported that they require workers to familiarize themselves with the MIA Technical Module entitled "Stone Shop Safety" so they can better understand these procedures.

Fabricators also pointed out that they shouldn't assume that their workers know how to lift properly. "When I've gone on the jobsite, I was very surprised to see that many guys don't know how to lift. It really opened my eyes. I wrote to the MIA about belts, and they said that no belt can make up for lifting improperly."

Q: When seaming the countertops in the field, there may be slight lippage. How do you keep the polish the same as the factory polish when you need to remove lippage from the seam?
One response to this question was simply to not seam with the lip. "If I find warped slabs, generally some kind of splash will go on, and we'll block it, put another stone face-to-face and clamp it."

The fabricators agreed that it takes "true craftsmanship and patience" to face-grind the lips when necessary. One participant said he found success with Alpha 3-inch resin pads. "We use the ones that don't bend. You stop at 2000 and switch to the Alpha black or white buff pad. You can't grind it too much, though. Some materials turn white."

To avoid problems in the field, one fabricator said that all of the projects are first laid out in the shop "to make sure we have a consistent look, regardless of material."

Q: What do people do with waste (cut-offs)?
This was a common issue for many of the fabricators present at the forum. Most said they find no value in these products, and the best situation would be to find someone that would be willing to haul it away. Others suggested using a Dumpster that is emptied once a week.

However, most of the fabricators said that selling cut-offs, or even cut-offs that have some value added, is more trouble than it is worth. "People see [the waste] and maybe they're interested in having you do something with it, but then they're also saying, 'Well, I'm not going to pay much for it. It's your garbage.'"