The recent Coverings 2006 exhibition in Orlando, FL, included an educational session, “Fabricators and Installers Forum: Residential Projects,” which addressed a variety of industry issues and challenges.

As part of the many educational opportunities presented at Coverings 2006, which took place from April 4 to 7 in Orlando, FL, an open forum for stone fabricators and installers was arranged by the Marble Institute of America and hosted by a panel of industry experts. The two-hour forum touched on a wide variety of industry issues, and the panel included:
  • Rich Booms, Booms Stone Co., Redford, MI (Past President, Marble Institute of America)
  • Scott Lardner, Rocky Mountain Stone Co., Albuquerque, NM (Immediate Past President, Marble Institute of America)
  • Jose Rodriguez, Total Design on Marble & Granite, Garland, TX

The following is a synopsis of selected topics that were addressed during the forum:

How many companies are investing in the digital templating systems in the marketplace right now? What types of companies are using them?

Participants in the forum agreed that it takes a “leap of faith” to invest in digital templating systems, as they need to change their way of thinking and move away from the more traditional methods for hard templating. This applies not only to the company owners, but also in the employees who will be using them in the field. “You really need the right people, who have an open mind to try something new,” stated one fabricator.

On the other hand, another fabricator noted that with so many new firms in the industry, some new templaters in the field never used the old system of creating hard templates, and so these “fresh” employees were open to the technology. It was compared to the use of CNC stoneworking centers, which were not widely accepted a few years ago, but are becoming more and more common in today's industry. Further illustrating this point, Lardner pointed out that at the previous year's Fabricator Forum, only one fabricator reported using digital templating technology, whereas over a dozen people said they use digital templating systems at this year's session.

Users also discussed the learning curve required when investing in digital templating systems. Rodriguez reported a three-month period required to learn the technology, while others said it ranged from three to six months.

Speaking about the features of the templating systems themselves, one fabricator noted that it is beneficial if the system allows the user to take photos that can be scaled, as well as software that will take them to a CAD file. These images, the fabricator said, document exactly what was templated, so the user can tell if the jobsite has changed, even slightly. It also allows the user to recheck areas of the jobsite that have been missed when visiting. “It almost makes us feel like we are back at the site,” he said, adding that they can document new dimensions and points as needed.

In terms of the time needed to template a kitchen using the digital templating systems, one user stated that he can measure three to four kitchens per day. Another said he generally spends 45 minutes on the jobsite and another hour to create the digital templates, with a second person refining the data. Users of these systems also pointed out the time savings gained by e-mailing data from the field to the shop as opposed to continually returning to the shop as jobs are measured.

What are some of the ways to optimize cutting productivity?

Participants in the forum spoke of the benefits of automation, not only in multi-function CNC stoneworking centers, but also in their cutting equipment. Mark Lauzon, owner of Stoneworks in Hubbard, OR, reported that he recently purchased a computerized, twin-bed waterjet/bridge saw that was engineered to cut a two-slab kitchen in only 20 minutes. He said that the unit features a pendant control that allows it to adjust for the veining of the material, and it can also eliminate the need for the finger bit on the CNC. Due to the level of automation, Lauzon said the same worker can run the new waterjet/bridge saw and the CNC machine simultaneously. He added, however, that the benefits of automation decrease when producing intricate custom kitchens, where the skill and experience of the sawyer remain a critical component of the process.

Rodriguez agreed that a company's need for automation depends on the needs of a fabricator's customer base - with standard “semi-custom” condominium projects being an optimum market for automated, high-volume production.

Despite the level of automation, however, participants at the forum also noted the benefit of selecting the slab with the customer. Moreover, they also said it was useful for the customer to understand exactly how the slab will be cut in relation to its veining. “We do this with the customer and the saw man present, so we all know what it will look like in the end,” one fabricator said.

Speaking on the issue of re-cuts, Booms asked forum participants to consider the costs of having to re-process a countertop. This results not only in increased material costs, he said, but also in “opportunity costs,” since the re-cut is taking up time on the saw and the edging equipment as well as increased labor in the shop.

What are some of the things fabrication shops are doing with their employees to reduce errors and increase overall productivity?

One participant in the forum said he hangs a chart in the shop that details the errors made on the job as well as individual productivity. Although workers were not directly penalized for their errors, he said that showcasing the success and failures added to overall accountability in the shop. He added that “people's natural competitiveness takes over” when they know their work is being measured against their peers.

Another fabricator at the forum said he developed an incentive program for error-free work and higher productivity. The program grouped individuals into “teams” - with experienced employees working alongside new hires - so the veteran crew members would help the new staff members on the job.

Booms discussed a shop where the performance of the various teams - sawing, templating, etc. - was noted for success and failure. This allowed them to see patterns of errors, although he noted that penalties for mistakes generally don't work because then employees will ultimately try to hide or conceal their errors.

As for training of new employees, several fabricators cited a “mentoring program,” where new workers are assigned to one of the more experienced workers in the shop, and the “mentor” is ultimately responsible for the finished work. The fabricators agreed that it is best to start new shop workers by having them work on backsplashes before moving on to slabs. Another fabricator said his new workers must complete a fabrication “challenge” after their training period is completed. In this challenge, workers process a workpiece to exact specifications before they become a fully salaried employee. The fabricator added that the competitive nature of workers to become “part of the group” drives them to learn the trade properly.

Although only a few of the fabricators present said they had formal training programs, several cited the Marble Institute of America training manuals as a solid reference guide in their operations.

Panelists at the forum were (from left) Scott Lardner of Rocky Mountain Stone Co., Rich Booms of Booms Stone Co. and Jose Rodriguez of Total Design on Marble & Granite.
What type of production rates are people getting for their edgework?

Comparing multi-head to single-head edge polishing machines, the fabricators said the speed can be eight to 10 times greater with the multi-head units. Production rates offered by the forum were 60 lineal feet per hour in bullnosed edges and 90 lineal feet per hour in flat edges.

In addition to a higher production speed, some of the fabricators also cited lower repair costs of the multi-head machines. “Daily maintenance and cleaning is key,” one fabricator stated. “As long as you oil the bearings regularly, it won't break down on you.”

Speaking on CNC production, Booms said that a CNC machine should process at least a kitchen and a half per day. “It won't solve all of your problems, but it will definitely speed production,” he said, adding that the workpiece still needs to be finished by hand, though. Adding to this thought, Lardner reported that CNC tooling has been developed to better finish the workpieces.

As for the cutting head of the multi-axis CNC machinery, most of the fabricators said they didn't find an effective use for this option. One fabricator said he was using it for rod slots, but not for major work.

When problems arise with resin-treated slabs in the shop, what are some solutions that you're implementing?

The most common problem noted with resin-treated slabs was matching the color of the finished edge (which tends to be lighter) to the surface (which tends to be darker). Several fabricators mentioned treating the edges with Tenax Ager or Aqua Mix Enrich and Seal, although some have specific methods for applying the products. One fabricator said that after processing with the 500-grit, he heats the edge with a torch and then applies Tenax Ager or Aqua Mix Enrich and Seal. By heating the edge, it allows the pores to open more, making the product more effective.

One participant also mentioned using Minwax wood stain to match the color of the edges and the surface, and he even said it could be used for surface imperfections.

Another issue mentioned was discoloration and inconsistency in the color of the stone surface. However, Booms said this could have likely been caused by chemical dyes used to enhance - or even alter - the color of the stone when the slabs were first produced overseas.

What is the best way to transport the finished countertop to the jobsite?

Despite the obvious jump in price over a pick-up truck and an A-frame, fabricators agreed that a box truck equipped with a ramp is the best possible option for transporting finished countertops to the jobsite. Owners of these trucks said it eliminates a great deal of lifting and carrying up stairs, as pieces can often be rolled on a dolly directly into the home.

Another fabricator said his firm uses a F. Barkow exterior transportation system, which is attached to the outside of a van. He said it can carry up to 1,000 pounds on each side of the van, and the load does not have to be balanced.

What do you do about variances in slab thickness? How do you achieve the best possible seams?

Addressing the issue of slab thickness, Booms said the best approach is to “marry” the pieces in the shop by dry laying them as they will be laid on the jobsite. Then pieces can be gauged with router wheels to match the thinnest part of either slab. Several other fabricators present at the forum also said they have been successful using this technique.

As for achieving a tight seam, the fabricators at the forum agreed that a seam puller is a critical tool to use on the jobsite, and several suppliers were said to offer effective products in the North American marketplace.

For particularly bad seams, the issue of seam polishing was addressed, and several forum participants said they have successfully polished the seams in place. Lauzon, who has taught seam polishing to a number of fabricators at the forum, said that a seam can be polished in 10 to 15 minutes, and he also said that step-by-step instructions could be found on his informational Web site,