Over the past few years, fabricators from around the country have been attending a forum at Coverings in Orlando, FL. These lively sessions have historically been candid discussions about issues, problems and solutions within the industry, and participants have been very forthright in sharing their successes and failures with their peers.

The 2004 edition of the Fabricators Forum, which was moderated by Stone World magazine, was no exception, as nearly 100 participants from around the country attended. The following is a rundown of the issues that were discussed at the session.

How many people are bringing CNC machinery into their fabricating shop? What has prompted them to do this?

As in years past, the overall response to this question was mixed. While some fabricators said they purchased CNC technology over the past few years, many others still do not feel their work has justified the investment.

For those using CNC technology, participants had as many as three machines in operation at one location. Another fabricator said they were currently using only one machine, but they were planning to add more as they learn the technology. One fabricator who recently purchased an Intermac Master Stone CNC machine said they “couldn't keep up with existing clientele without it.”

One question that came up was the volume of work needed before investing in CNC technology. However, the users of CNC equipment said that the need for this machinery was not based only on volume, but also on the type of work being fabricated. In particular, one CNC operator said their people couldn't keep up with details like ogee kitchens or drainboards, and that they did not have enough skilled people to do the details. Additionally, the fabricator was doing a lot of custom, circular work that was consuming all of his shop time.

For those using CNC technology, how difficult was it to learn? Is there typically a specialist who runs the machine, or are there multiple operators?

For the most part, operators of the CNC technology were limited to selected people in each shop. One shop reported that three people were able to use the machinery, and the owner did the programming. Another just had one operator, with a second operator in training.

Users of CNC technology reported that learning to use the machinery doesn't necessarily take a long time, but there may be a learning curve to use the machine to its full potential. “Learning to operate the machine doesn't take long at all,” stated one fabricator. “It's the programming that takes awhile, and that's something that you learn with practice.”

Overall, users said they were not intimidated by the CNC technology. “I'm not a computer person. I have more trouble working on the Internet than I do with that machine,” one participant noted. The user of the Intermac CNC machine explained that he went to AGM's facilities for three or four days, and there was a technician present at his shop for two weeks. Also, over time, they have received advanced training for drainboards or shower basins -- “things that were too complicated to learn during the initial training.” The Intermac machine comes with its own CAD program, which can be used with AutoCAD, and he also cited a program called StoneCAD designed specifically for the work.

For those fabricators who are not using CNC machines, what have been some of the reasons that you haven't made this investment?

Most respondents said they are relying on the talents of the workers, and that their production levels and type of work being produced simply did not justify the expense of CNC machinery. “I have six guys in my shop, and we just rely on the skill of the workers and routers,” stated one fabricator.

What are the ways in which shops are handling their water recycling?

In introducing the topic, the forum discussed a fabricator in New Jersey with a very advanced water filtration system. This company reports that 100% of the water used at the facility is recycled, and they do not use any municipal water. In this system, the water runs through a pool to remove larger debris, and two pumps feed the resulting “gray water” to the bridge saws as well as the edging machine and the “halos” of the CNC spindles. By using two pumps, the company is guaranteed not to have any down time, as it can operate with only one pump if the other breaks down.

For the most part, though, fabricators said they are using a standard bag filtration system. One fabricator reported using a simple “caveman system” with a 5- x 5- x 4-foot hole in the ground and two 1,500-gallon tanks.

What are some of the issues that fabricators are seeing with quartz surfacing?

Since many fabricators are working with quartz surfacing such as Silestone, Caesarstone and DuPont Zodiaq, certain issues have come into play. For the most part, they are using the same machinery and tooling for quartz surfacing as they are using for natural stone. However, there have been some issues in the shop. One fabricator said that special handling was needed when working the material. He said that when doing edgework by hand, some of the lighter materials actually burned and he was able to see the material melt down. He also noted that some of the black materials will fracture if they get too hot, or the resin will turn whiter. “We've had differences with polish quality, between what comes out on the edge and what is on the face. We have actually been able to get a better edge than the face.”

Another participant reported the same problem with Technistone. He said the “Sandstone Beige” variety worked very well with a beveled edge, but when working with the gray variety, they were working to get a “granite polish” on the edge and it was greater than the polish on the face. “We actually had to break the [edge] polish down to get it to match. We had to stop at 1,500 [grit].”

Speaking on solid surface materials such as DuPont Corian, participants at the forum said that they are generally used as a result of owner preference, and not because of price. “There is a huge price difference between the synthetic materials and the real material, and the synthetic material is substantially higher,” one participant said.

“I think [solid surfacing] is a material that's come about through fear tactics, from DuPont specifically, just because they are losing more and more market share from granite,” said another, adding that these tactics have also been used to promote DuPont Zodiaq quartz surfacing over natural stone. “A lot of the former solid surface companies are putting out [false] information about mold and bacteria or radon from stone, and they are really pushing this. They see that they've lost their market share, and they are trying to recover some by coming out with synthetics.”

Others pointed to the color variations not available in stone -- such as bright yellows or surfaces inlaid with mirror pieces -- or the consistency. They also noted the distribution network for quartz surfacing, particularly Home Depot, which carries Cosentino's Silestone nationwide. “I think more than anything, I think that's the market they're going after, where the people they are selling to are not as sophisticated as some other people who would go to a stone shop.”

A different point of view was presented from a participant from Italy, who represented a quartz surfacing manufacturer. She cited the develop-ments and research currently going into quartz surfacing, and she pointed out that the technical qualities of quartz surfacing make it a high-performance material as opposed to porous stone materials.

With the advent of pre-resined slabs in the marketplace, have there been issues in the fabrication shop relative to this trend? Complaints have been that the edges of the countertop appear to be lighter than the finished surface. Some of the manufacturers have developed products to treat the edges and make them match the surface. What are the thoughts here on resined slabs?

Overall, fabricators seemed to feel that the resined slabs themselves were not a problem, but that there are issues that need to be addressed by the industry. One fabricator noted that there are products, such as Tenax Ager, that allow the edges of a resined slab to match the finished surface. However, there were fears that this treatment would wear off over time. They also said that resined slabs that were treated with a solvent-based sealer developed a “white cloud” on the surface.

“The companies that are doing the resining need to really research something for the fabricators that are working with it every day to make it a little bit easier to treat our edges and our drainboards and other things that cause problems,” stated one member of the audience. Another said it would be beneficial to know what resin product was originally used on the slab in case it needs to be touched up. Expanding on this thought, though, there were concerns that once a resin is applied and cures, the same resin product could not even be used for restoring a damaged or marred surface. “There has to be a way or another type of chemical to give us the opportunity to match [the original surface.]”

Some solutions were offered by fabricators who experienced these issues with resined slabs. “We did a drainboard on a resin slab about two months ago, and we had to stain it with linseed oil to get the stain in there,” explained one fabricator. “I could see the difference, but the homeowner approved it. I had told him from the beginning that we would have to do that with the top. It was a nightmare.”

“We had a similar situation where we had to re-polish the face of the rest of the job to get it to match,” said another participant. “Some of them work out with the Ager, but we just couldn't get this one close enough.”

Other issues were cited with resined slabs that were left in the sunlight, and the surface discolored when exposed directly to the sun. An example was given where one slab yard ended up with a slab that was partially discolored (the portion exposed to the sun) and partially normal (the portion protected from the sun). This situation can also pose a problem after installation, explained a fabricator who was familiar with this situation. “If you have a bay window next to the granite countertop, unless you have tinted windows, you may have a problem.”

There were also cases of an uneven grind before resining at the factory. “We just had some slabs I rejected last week,” said one fabricator. “We had 15 slabs come in, and there was still resin smack dab in the center of the slab. We took a razor blade and took it right off.”

“We also had problems where the edges weren't ground down, and around the edge you could actually peel the resin off,” stated another fabricator. “We were able to cut around that, and the face was okay.”

Fabricators agreed that resin-treated slabs were a better option than using cement fill to address pits in the face of a slab. “To look at the reflection of the surface and see all the dull spots [from cement fill] was an instant negative,” stated one participant. “All in all, I think [treating slabs with resin] is good; we just need to figure out how to deal with it,” said another. “With some stones, like Delicato, there would be no way you could fabricate the stone or even sell it if it wasn't resin treated.”

People were also curious whether resin-treated slabs were also able to be sealed. One respondent said that they used a solvent-based sealer on all slabs, and sometimes it would not soak in deeply on a resin-treated slab. “You have to back over it with a Scotch-brite pad to remove the residue sometimes.”

The technology for material handling seems like more of a consideration these days, with more vacuum lifters and such. What are people using in their shops?

The fabricators present at the forum had varying levels of handling equipment in their shops, depending mostly on the size of their respective operations. The first speaker said he relies on the Abaco slab lifter, calling it “the best clamp I've ever seen.” “I don't have an overhead crane, otherwise I would use vacuum lifters,” he said. People also pointed to the high cost of vacuum systems, although several participants felt that investing in these products have resulted in less back injuries by the workers in the shop. “Also, by using one person instead of two, you're not interrupting another operation. We have three small overhead cranes and two jib booms to move material, and it has worked out nicely.”

Another fabricator said they set up a monorail system with single-speed electrical hoists. “We added it well after the plant was established. If we had to do it over again, I'd have put in an overhead crane so you could cover the entire shop. We retrofit what we had, and we just set up monorails where we needed them. We have two saws, and one saw has a tilt table so we don't need it there. But for the other one, we've set up a monorail that is perpendicular to the length of the cut and we bring the lifter right to the table, and it goes 90 degrees flat so we can drop it down. We also have two Marmo Meccanica edging machines where we use rotating lifters. We have a vacuum lifter that spins 360 degrees, and we run all the material vertically, which is why we use the spinner. Then, once we get to the end of the piece, we can rotate it however we need it and bring it to the other side and run it through again. It's cut way down on back injuries, so it was definitely worth the money.”

Those who didn't have advanced material handling systems relied on rolling carts and forklifts and made sure that multiple workers were involved in slab handling. “Ninety-five percent of the work we do in our shop is 3-cm material. I actually charge more for 3⁄4-inch laminate because I just don't like working with it,” said one participant. Fabricators reported some incidents of breakage using clamps, particularly when dealing with more fragile marble varieties or thinner materials.

Another topic has been shop safety, and it was discussed at length last year. What is the situation out there now?

As always, this was a major concern at the forum. One participant recalled a story from last year's forum where a worker was killed moving a slab. “I wasn't out that door two minutes before I called my shop and said, 'We have a new rule here. Two men on a slab at all times.' We've never lost a slab with the Abaco lifter, but we have lost ones where the slab had a crack in it and it was on suction cups, and they come down hard.”

The MIA's Shop Safety Module, which was partially reprinted in Stone World last year, was mentioned as a good source of information for safety, but most fabricators said they did not have a formal set of safety guidelines. They cited an overall lack of time to prepare these types of documents. “I refuse to pay someone eight hours a day just to answer my phones. I'm the type that loves buying tools, but hates buying copy paper, and there is a lack of time.”

One fabricator said he used the MIA module to draft an 8-page safety pamphlet, which every employee had to sign off on after reading and reviewing. “We then enforce the best practices after they've read it.” Another participant said his shop stresses “no heroics,” meaning that they shouldn't try to save a falling slab. “We tell them that we'd rather have a piece lost than someone getting hurt. Once one of the rookies sees a slab go down, they see what it does, and they know not to try and save something.”

Another fabricator said that her firm was given safety guidelines by one of the insurance companies providing coverage to the stone industry.

(Editor's note: There was a suggestion that Stone World publish a poster of stone safety guidelines that could be hung in the employee lounges of fabrication shops, and that is a possibility for later this year.)

A big concern lately has been increased competition in the marketplace -- not only from outside industries, but also from new firms within the stone industry. I would say that about 30% of the firms I am visiting within the U.S. have been in business for five years or less. And there seems to be two types of firms: Some firms are going about it the right way, learning the trade, consulting established industry experts, attending educational seminars (such as this one) and maintaining a high level of craftsmanship. Others seem to be riding the coattails of the industry's success, and their goal is to make a quick buck as easily as possible. I fear that these people will “cheapen” the industry and stone fabricators will be regarded as “just another contractor.” What have the people here been seeing?

Following the trend of the industry, there was a healthy mix of newly established firms and older companies present at the forum. However, most of the owners of new firms had been in the stone industry for some time, working for someone else. The first person to speak on this topic has been in business as an owner for two years. “But I know what you mean,” he said. “I am in Florida, and I see people doing work out of a van. I personally won't get out of bed for less than $50 a square foot, but there are guys selling stone all day long for $30 or $35 per square foot. There are people in Pompano Beach selling stone for $19.95 per foot fabricated and installed.”

Another speaker recently purchased a firm that has been in business for three years. “My husband and I took almost six months of pre-investigative work to learn the industry, and every single person we spoke with has offered us to come into their shop and look at what they are doing. I have found this to be a welcoming industry.”

Do you think that some homeowner complaints are merely the result of more stone being installed as a whole, and there isn't actually an increase in the percentage of problem jobs? Or are there new firms out there that are bringing down the overall quality of the trade? Or are some of the older firms cutting corners and giving less priority to the smaller jobs?

Most fabricators agreed that there needs to be a set of standards for the stone industry, but they also felt that this would be difficult to achieve. The first response to this question was that

the stone industry is “completely unregulated.” “To fabricate Corian, you have to go to a school,” explained one participant. “But to do stone, my grandmother can walk into any supplier and have it delivered to her house.”

“I have heard about horror stories that were absolutely phenomenal,” said one industry member, who cited www.ntc-stone.com (the Web site for the National Training Center for Stone and Masonry Trades) as a valuable source for information regarding case studies.

“I think the stone distributors can do a lot to help that,” responded another member of the audience. “They want to sell as much stone as they can, but there are certain people they shouldn't be selling stone to, and they are. I see that as a problem, and the bottom line is that if they're not selling to that other person, the end user is still going to buy stone from someone [who is qualified].” However, the audience agreed that it would take a “major concerted effort” by all stone sellers to make this happen, which was unlikely.

One possible source of accreditation or certification is the recently formed Natural Stone Council, which is working in conjunction with the Marble Institute of America. The concept of “certified real stone” was discussed as a possible step for setting standards, where fabrication shops would be required to follow certain standards for Council Certification. “It is going in the right direction,” said one fabricator. Another stated, “I think it's a plus for the whole industry.”

How do you go about hiring and training new workers in your shop? What do you do to hang on to good workers?

This has been one of the most prevalent obstacles for today's stone fabricators. A shop will hire and train a worker, and once they are trained, another shop will hire them away for a few more dollars per week. The fabricators present at this forum have experienced these issues on a continual basis.

The first respondent said they started working in Michigan 11 or 12 years ago with just two employees, and grew from there. And as they were training people, many would leave for the competitors. “So what we did was to take everyone in place and every new hire from that day forward, and they would all sign a confidentiality agreement.” He reported that it “makes them think twice about going to the competitor because everything they learn in our place is considered proprietary.” He also said that competitors in the area were calling his best employees at least once a month. “They got some of them, too, and some have come back and said, 'I never should have left to begin with.' “

Do you look for stone industry experience from your employees? I recently visited two fabricating shops in Arizona, and the first said they didn't want any industry experience because they might have learned bad habits. The second fabricator said that there were enough qualified, experienced workers in the area that they could require a certain amount of stone industry experience.

People were mixed on whether or not they hired people with stone industry experience (in fact, some refused to hire those from the stone trade). But virtually everyone said it wasn't necessary, since the character of the individual was most important. The first person who answered the question was negative on prior stone industry experience. “Every person I've hired who had industry experience has been out of my door within three or four weeks. When you think about it, if they're out on the street and they're looking for a job in this industry, odds are they screwed up someplace else. I always look for someone with carpentry or construction skills, but not necessarily in the stone industry. The main things are honesty and hard work, and I can teach them the rest. Within a few weeks, you can make someone into a decent stone fabricator and installer.”

Another fabricator echoed this sentiment. “I've got my three key guys and myself, and from that I want people with auto body experience. If I want a saw man, I want someone with sheet metal layout experience, and then I will train them from there.”

Some participants at the forum felt that the level of experience wasn't as important as the attitude of the individual. “We've had people with experience that have come in with good character, and they not only taught our guys things that they did differently, but we were also able to exchange ideas with them. We've also looked for people who don't have any experience. I find that if you get a good person, you can train them to do anything over time. So it's getting the right person in place. I don't think it's necessarily experience or not. You can get a bad experienced person, or a bad person who is a novice.”

How do you find employees? Do you simply place ads in the paper?

Again, the comments from the audience varied, and there seemed to be no set process for finding and hiring new employees. “We've placed ads in the paper. We've also had people find us,” stated one fabricator, although others said results from classified ads are mixed. Other fabricators went with a more unique approach. “I once turned a slab around and painted 'help wanted,' and I had 25 people come in,” he said.

Once you hire a new employee, how long does it take from them to be a productive contributor to the operation -- from the day you hire them to the day that they can work unsupervised on jobs?

Opinions on this topic differed. Some said that employees could be productive in a matter of days -- particularly for operations such as water polishing. “Grinding is the last thing I'll have someone do, because the grind is most important,” one participant stated. “Routing can also be done within days. As long as they pay attention, they really can't mess it up.”

Do most people in your shop specialize, or do you cross train employees?

Most fabricators said that it is best that the employees learn to use multiple pieces of equipment, if not all functions in the shop and installation process. “If you have a small shop, you've got to cross train,” said one participant. “I have a saw guy. However, I want everyone in my shop to know how to operate the saw. And if I don't have something for my saw guy to saw, then I'll send him to template. The same thing applies to the installers.”

Another participant agreed with this philosophy. “We have multiple people who can do multiple things, so if someone breaks a leg and can't come to work for a month, we're not without a templater or installer or saw man,” he said.

Those fabricators who cross train said there is a “feeling out” process of learning who would be able to take on certain tasks, and who might not be suited for particular jobs within the shop. “I've got some guys who I won't put on a sink hole,” one said.

I've been to shops that have offered incentive plans for their workers, based on overall production for the month. Does anyone here have a program like this?

Some people had such programs in place, although others were opposed to them. “I wouldn't because I would be concerned about the quality they were going to get on the fabrication. If you're paying somebody by the linear foot with edge detailing, they're going to be more apt to hit that dull spot with a can of wax when you've got your head turned.”

One fabricator gave details on a bonus program based on monthly production. “I pay by the hour and then I have a bonus plan for the entire group based on what goes out the door at the end of the month. And then if we have any defects or call-backs, or something that the customer is unhappy with, it comes off out of that bonus pool every month. If we have to go out just because the customer called us, I've got set dollar amounts. If we have to go out to the house, it's $150 out of the bonus pool. If I have to go out myself, it's $300 out of the bonus pool. So it's not the shop guys against the installers. Everyone is on the same page, and if one guy is constantly screwing up, he's going to have so much pressure from his peers that he's either going to straighten up, or they're going to show him the door. Everybody splits the pool equally, from the office managers to the saw guy and the installer.” The speaker said he updates progress on an almost daily basis, and there is a large “scoreboard” that shows where the shop's production stands at any given time.

Calculating the bonus is also a challenge, and it's not necessarily best to use square footage as a measuring stick. “[Paying by the] square foot is okay, and that's the way we started, but it didn't take into account that an ogee job would take a lot more time than a straight edge,” the fabricator said. “We calculate it by revenue, and once the revenue for the month gets to a certain amount, the bonus starts; and once we reach the next goal, the bonus increases, and it continues all the way down the line. There is also a minimum. If we don't reach a certain dollar amount, then they don't get a bonus. We've also had months where the bonus pool has been completely drained. If a piece gets broken in the shop, it comes out of the bonus pool. We usually calculate that by what it costs us. If we have to re-do a piece, it's the labor and the material costs.” The payout is roughly 5%. “People always hear, 'Boss I want a raise.' But if everyone works as a team, the raise takes care of itself.” He said it is a good plan, “because if the work's not there, you're not paying them.”

Others were paying installers based on volume as well, including workers that were outsourced during busy periods. “We pay by the square foot, and if they break a piece, they lose money,” said one participant. “I'd recommend going out to see them work [before arranging an agreement with them], because that's a representation of your work out there. So I'd want to find someone out there that I'd want to use on a consistent basis, so they've got a lot at stake.”

How sophisticated are the benefit plans for employees in the shop? I've heard that many shops are offering 401k programs, better medical plans and so on.

Participants in the forum agreed that having a strong benefits program was advantageous to make sure good employees are encouraged to stay on board. “I think it's one way of keeping employees,” said one speaker. “We have, as far as I'm concerned, one of the best medical plans that we could get. We have 401k, and we also have a profit sharing and pension plan. That's worth a lot to people, and it makes their job environment a lot better.”

Others also reported providing 401k plans and compensation packages for health care where the employer pays a percentage based on the time the worker has been with the company. Dental plans were also mentioned. “I don't think you could survive without offering those kinds of things,” said one fabricator.

With so many international trade fairs around the world, some stone fabricators have begun importing directly from slab manufacturers overseas. How has this worked out?

It appears that there are more U.S. stone fabricators attending trade shows in overseas markets such as Italy and Brazil than ever before, and they are sourcing stone for direct import rather than going through a distributor. The results have been mixed in terms of cost savings versus quality and customer service.

Despite the increased fabricator presence at foreign trade shows, many of the participants at the forum reported that they still buy the bulk of their material through distributors. Those purchasing direct overseas, though, reported few complaints. “It has worked out fine,” said one fabricator. “I would say we import 80 to 85% of all the materials we fabricate -- from Italy, Brazil, Spain and China. You have to find people who are reputable and people that you can trust.”

Another fabricator said he has been importing direct for a while, and only recently ran into problems. “We stock 40 different colors, so we import a lot from Italy, Brazil and China, and up until a couple weeks ago, we've had great luck,” he said, adding that they recently received a shipment from Brazil that was not what they ordered.

One of the fabricators who imports directly said her firm can still pick up out-of-stock items from a local distributor (in the Atlanta area) as needed, and that importing directly hasn't hurt their relationship. “We are buying enough from them and they're close enough that we don't get overcharged” when buying in small quantities. Another fabricator in the Atlanta area agreed with this. “In our market, we have a lot of distributors competing over our business, whether we buy two slabs for a single job or a bundle. They're happy to have the business any time.”

What are people doing with remnants? When you're pricing a job out, and you use a slab and a half, are you charging the customer for the balance of that slab?

Remnants were cited as a continual problem for stone fabricators. Some charge the full amount for the second slab, and if they use the remnant stone, they consider it to be bonus revenue, but others felt they couldn't do this. In any case, they felt there was little use for half slabs. “There's no time to make little vanities and have a yard sale,” said one fabricator.

One fabricator had recently purchased a stone crusher, and he plans to sell crushed stone as landscape rock. Colors will be graded as light, medium or dark.

It seems like showrooms are becoming more and more prevalent in the industry, and shops are letting homeowners see a vignette along with the samples. What is the trend here?

Consistent with the industry trend, having some form of showroom space was an increasing consideration for the fabricators at the forum. One participant at the forum said they are currently sharing showroom space with a ceramic tile retailer, and it was “a good fit.”

Many of the fabricators still don't service walk-ins, although this trend is changing. “We're open to the public, but most people are sent in by nearby cabinet builders,” said one fabricator.

Another has three showrooms, and the third is in cooperation with a cabinet company who didn't want to go through the expense of buying granite countertops for the showroom. There are two doors in the space. One has the name of the stone company and the other has the name of the cabinet company.

Is anyone using e-templating or photo templating systems?

A relatively new product on the market has been electronic or photo templating systems, which operate with the goal of removing human error. It is s

Photo captions

The 2004 edition of the Fabricators Forum -- held during Coverings in Orlando, FL, and moderated by Stone World magazine -- drew nearly 100 participants from around the country.

Once again, CNC technology was a hot topic at the forum, as fabricators discussed their use of the machinery, learning the equipment and other factors.

The use of advanced water treatment technology was also discussed, although most fabricators are still using a standard bag filtration system.

Since many fabricators are working with quartz surfacing, they are finding that it can be different than processing natural stone. As such, special care must be taken with certain material varieties.

With so many slab plants specializing in resin-treated slabs, fabricators have been required to learn how to work with these materials, including how to match the edges and how to repair defects.

Many of the fabricators present at the forum have become more conscious of the need for suitable handling technology, including vacuum lifters.

Stone shop safety -- including what to wear while working -- is an increasing concern for today's fabricators, but many shops still do not have formal guidelines in place.