With fabrication shops working on tighter margins than ever before, many shop managers and owners are eliminating unnecessary cost by increasing efficiency. Recently, I conducted a roundtable on increasing shop efficiency with members of the Stone Fabricators Alliance (SFA), which can be found on page 62 of this issue.

The participants in this discussion were very thorough in their responses, and they outlined some easy-to-implement procedures that apply to large-scale production facilities as well as smaller fabrication shops.

Virtually all of the fabricators who participated in the forum said that focusing on basic material staging was an immense help in increasing shop efficiency. And although this may seem to be a fundamental part of shop procedures, it can often be overlooked when things get busy or a shop owner/manager is being pulled in another direction - as is often the case.

Among the steps being taken by today’s fabrication shops to increase efficiency, I noted a couple of common threads. The first of these is material staging. Although it seems basic, I can tell you from experience that many stone fabrication shops have not been able to make material staging an integral part of their operation. “Staging materials in front of the saw can be a huge way to improve the efficiency of the sawing process,” explained Matt Lansing of Stone Innovations in Plover, WI. “Take the jobs for the day that need to be cut, and stack the slabs in reverse order on an A-frame next to the saw. When the sawyer finishes a slab, he can grab the next one and keep moving throughout the day. Spending 10 minutes to go around the yard looking for the slab adds up very fast.”

This thought was echoed by Eric Pate, Technical Director/Sales for Continental Diamond Products, Inc. “Matt’s saw-staging suggestion is the best thing we did while at my previous shop. This saves so much time - not only in going back and forth pulling the slabs individually from outside or from a warehouse - but also in terms of paperwork. Any issues can be caught immediately during that phase for all jobs, instead of running back and forth for each job that might raise a question. All materials can be reviewed to the saw operator as they are being pulled. Even though we would have what we thought were great notes for the saw man, he may have had his own interpretation or even find issues we missed. This led to job staging and the review process going hand-in-hand in the mornings.”

Again, although it seems fundamental, the basic gist is to ensure that employees are spending most of their cutting and polishing stone as opposed to walking around the shop. “All the material, not just slabs, needs to be in spots that make sense for the shop,” said Joe Durfee, Production Manager of Great Lakes Granite & Marble in Redford, MI. “Why take 10 steps to get material when five steps will do? By having everything close to the machines, you will save a few steps - and seconds - for each job. It may not seem like much, but all those seconds are pennies that add up at the end of the year. Efficiency comes down to making more money.”

Another fundamental of shop efficiency is maintaining the proper material flow. However, as shops expand and add equipment, this is often disrupted to the point where efficiency is compromised. “Our production is completely linear,” explained Miles Crowe of Crowe Custom Countertops in Atlanta, GA. Although their shop has made a number of technology investments over the years, it has continuously maintained this approach, and when Crowe moved into a new facility earlier this year, he was able to ensure that material flow would be maximized. “Material comes in through one end of the shop and finished product goes out the other end,” he said. "Material handling has to be kept to a minimum. Work only flows in one direction. Slabs are staged for cutting and then go to the SawJet. From there, pieces go onto the CNC router and then on to finish polish by hand. Nothing is allowed to go backwards.”

The concepts I mention above are only two of the many points that were discussed to increase shop efficiency. At a time when every business is looking for an edge, it may prove invaluable to take a moment and examine the other insights that were shared in the full roundtable discussion on page 62.