A lively Fabricator Forum took place at Coverings 2007 in Chicago, IL, allowing fabricators to voice some of the issues they are facing in the shop and in the field.

Once again, the lineup of educational sessions at the Coverings exhibition included a Fabricator Forum, where stoneworking professionals were able to submit specific issues to a panel of industry veterans as well as the audience at large. This year’s panel for the forum, which was intended for stone fabricators with five or more years of experience, included GK Naquin and Mark Blanda of Stone Interiors in Loxley, AL, and Brandon Maldonado of Maldonado Tile & Marble of Fullerton, CA. The following is a recap of some of the issues raised during the session, along with the solutions and answers that were discussed:
Q: What is the true cost of operating a waterjet? When is it worth the investment?

A: Blanda was the first to address the topic, and he estimated that the cost of operating a waterjet is approximately $35 per hour. He said that it is most suited for shops that are doing a lot of radius work and “L-runs.”
Expanding on this concept, Naquin mentioned the combination bridge saw/waterjet, which he called “an interesting new commodity in terms of cutting.” One veteran fabricator in the audience who said he is doing a lot of complex work - bump-outs, detailed corners, etc. - said he is currently relying heavily on this new technology. “The great thing is that once it is in place, you can hit ‘start’ and walk away,” he said. “It cuts slower [than a basic bridge saw], but you’re not standing there moving pieces around and spinning the table. You end up with a perfect part.” The fabricator did caution that it took some time to learn the technology, and he estimated that he was achieving a cutting rate of 15 to 18 inches per minute in 3-cm material and a rate of up to 25 inches per minute in 2-cm material.

Q: Who is responsible for doing the plumbing hook-ups on the jobsite?

A: Maldonado addressed this question by saying that it should not be the fabricator’s responsibility to do this work. “There are potential problems with this, and we let the clients know,” he said. As a courtesy and a convenience to his clients, Maldonado said his company will refer the client to a plumber to do this work. In these instances, the client generally pays the plumber directly; however, some clients want all of the work to appear on a single bill, and he accommodates these requests.

Q: What are people doing with their remnants? Is it worth the effort to try and sell them?

A: In answering this common question, Naquin said that he had previously sold remnants on a retail basis, “but it really depends on your market.” He also said he has had remnant pieces sold by an auction house, which kept half the revenue. “That’s still OK, though, really,” he said. “Dead stock is dead, so if you can get half, you’re that far ahead. There are many fabricators out there with remnants, so it is not that easy.”
One fabricator in the audience said that one of his competitors has been using a machine that “presses” the remnants into shaped pavers. The unit operates much like a “cookie cutter,” literally pressing the material to achieve the shaped paver.

Q: How are people doing their templating? When does digital templating make sense?

A: Despite a high volume of work at Stone Interiors, Blanda explained that the company is still using cardboard templates, due to its equipment lineup. “With manual saws, you don’t see the speed increase [with digital templating] since you still need the physical templates,” he said. “There is a benefit to physically seeing what is there and making adjustments.”
However, Naquin added that the technology “is the way the future is going, especially for intricate layouts.”
“You have to dive right into it,” said one fabricator with regard to learning digital/electronic templating technology. “Your operator needs to be diligent and learn the technology, but there are errors with stick templates as well.” Once back in the shop, he said he uses a plotter to create clear plastic templates, which can be placed over the material on the saw table. This allows them to see the movement and veining of the stone in relation to the finished pieces being cut.
Another fabricator in the audience said he is using laser templating technology, and it was worth the “learning curve” that was required. “I’d never go back to sticks,” he said. “I will still do a rough sketch of the kitchen and take the physical measurements, and when I am working in CAD, I compare the two. I also denote the offsets on the drawing.” He said this step adds about 10 minutes more to the templating time.

Q: How do you estimate waste factor for each job? Is this figured into the price?

A: According to Naquin, it is advisable to include a 35% waste factor for material costs when bidding a project. “Everyone wants a square-foot price, but it had better include your waste,” he said.
Adding to this thought, Maldonado said he only charges for full slabs. “Once we are into a second slab, they bought it,” he said. “We don’t do production work, though, so we are not usually tied into a square-foot price.”
Whether or not a fabricator considers waste when pricing a job can also depend on the region of the country, Blanda said. “No one way is right. You really have to do what the market dictates.”

Q: How do you deal with low-cost competition? Do you try to meet lower costs?
A: Maldonado stressed that selling on the basis of price is not effective over the long term. “We used to work in production, and we were chasing price,” he said. “Now we don’t worry about what people charge. We have developed a reputation for quality and customer service, and there is a value to that. It took eight to 10 years to build this reputation, though.”

In building a reputation in the marketplace, Maldonado said his company worked hard to establish a rapport with its clients. “We really had to represent ourselves well,” he said. “We provided a warranty, and we had sell sheets. We would educate the client on the different stones and their properties. They are simple things, but the client really appreciates it.” Additionally, Maldonado provides “care kits” for the customer after the sale, which are printed with the company name.
Naquin said that Stone Interiors also offers free care kits for its clients, which they receive in return for filling out a customer satisfaction survey. “We get 40% back, which is a high rate,” he said.

Q: With all of the different materials in the marketplace, how are you able to determine the true cost of fabrication? Some stones are a lot more expensive to process.

A: Maldonado said that for his shop, the greater fluctuation in price comes from the edge treatment, since his company offers 27 different edges. “We only charge extra for onyx,” he said. “And then we add 25% for extra shop time.”

Blanda agreed with this opinion. “There may be a factor in the waste, but it is not a premium,” he said. Naquin added that the only upcharge for fabrication is when a customer requests a honed surface.

Q: Are fabricators offering any performance-based incentives for their workers, where they receive a bonus for reaching a certain rate of production?

A: In addressing this topic, Maldonado said that despite being a high-end custom shop, the rate of production is still important, so he does have a program in place for his employees. “I still know we need a certain amount of production per day,” he said. “We have a quarterly goal, and we share the revenue with our staff if it is met.”
Naquin said that his company also has a performance-based program where employees receive minimal base pay, and each position receives an additional rate of pay per square foot. “Fabricators and other jobs that can be measured by the foot are paid on their production, while other workers like forklift operators receive their money based on the overall shop’s production in terms of footage. The jobs that come out wrong are taken out of their pay, and re-dos are not counted in the program.”

Q: When does it make sense to purchase a used machine? What should a buyer look for?

A: Blanda said that it really depends on the type of machine being considered. “I am not sure if I would buy a used CNC machine,” he said. “In any event, you need to check the maintenance record and make sure it has a clean title.”
Maldonado added that there may be some relatively new equipment being sold second hand. “If a company is going out of business, the machine may not be overused like a machine being used by someone who ran it into the ground,” he said.
When considering the purchase of a used machine, Naquin suggested having a representative of the original manufacturer inspect the equipment before buying. “The current building slump has resulted in business closings and machines on sale,” he said. “A machine from a company that was undercapitalized may be good, but I’d definitely have it checked out.”

Q: What type of warranties are fabricators offering their clients? What is actually being warrantied?

A: Maldonado said that his company offers a three-year warranty, but there is a disclaimer against natural pits and other characteristics of stone. “It is still the client’s responsibility to maintain the slab,” he said. “There aren’t many written warranties in my area, so this goes back to customer service. It’s really more of a comfort factor, though. It doesn’t really come up much.”
Taking a different approach, Naquin said his company sells different warranty plans for its customers. “We sell a five-year warranty and a lifetime warranty,” he said. “If you sell it to them for a price, they believe in it. Obviously there are some things we can’t control, but re-caulking a kitchen, for example, only takes a few minutes. We also sell a maintenance program.”

Q: What are some jobsite practices that can be done to protect a company against a failure?

A: In responding to this inquiry, the panel stated that it is very useful to take photos of any special or unique conditions at the jobsite, as well as the seams and the sink/stove strips. They also recommended taking photos of any pre-existing cabinet/floor scratches. Photographing the cabinetry also covers the installers in instances when it has been modified in between the time of templating and installation. “On a normal job, we will take 10 to 15 photos when we are measuring and another 10 to 15 during the installation,” Blanda said.

The panel also said that the field crew should check for out-of-level cabinets at the time of templating, so they know if that will be an issue prior to fabrication. This gives them time to remedy the problem before returning to the site with the finished pieces. “If we’re working with a builder, then they usually deal with the problem,” Maldonado said. “With homeowners, we have a preparation charge.”

Q: How are fabricators able to retain their employees?

A: The panelists and audience members at the forum agreed that this is a common problem for stone fabrication shops, although it depends on how populated the market or region is. “[Finding employees] is not a big problem in California,” Maldonado said. “We maybe pay a bit more than some competitors, and we make sure everyone is paid on time.”
In retaining employees, Naquin said his company has non-compete clauses. This is particularly important, he said, due to the money it invests in employee benefits, training, etc. “We pay a lot for our employees to learn the trade,” he said.

One fabricator in attendance said he actually shows the dollar value for employee benefits on the paychecks so they “understand how much that employee is really costing the company.”