“Our major focus is on fabrication and support of our own customers as well as the retailers and installers that we sell to,” explained Craig Berry, owner of the company, who explained that U.S. Granite is the processing facility, while Berry Marble & Granite is the retail arm of the group. “Berry Marble & Granite is our granite showroom, and we focus on our colors that are sold under the ‘buy only what you need’ program, which makes it simple for us and our salespeople. The customer only pays for the exact square footage needed for a project. If they need 23.3 feet of a certain material, then they only pay for 23.3 feet. Our process makes it easier for us to be able to sell like that, because we are maximizing the use of every slab.”
A total of 85% of the company’s business is through Berry Marble & Granite, and most of the company’s granite, marble and quartz countertops are part of the “buy only what you need” program.
Two decades of advancing technology
For Berry, 2013 marks 20 years in the stone industry, and some of the most dramatic moves have taken place in the past five years or so. “I bought my first company in 1993, and we have evolved over the years,” he said. “We had a very large fabrication facility just outside of Dallas, and we had 110,000 square feet of space. It was all saws, Park Pro-Edge machines and hand equipment. I was involved in selling that business in 2006-2007, and at the same time, I worked for two years investigating all types of machinery and equipment. I went from Seattle to North Carolina looking at different plants.”
In purchasing the new equipment, Berry was seeking a high level of automation, particularly in regard to material handling. “We pulled the trigger with the Breton line,” he said. “In addition to the normal efficiencies and nesting, one of the major issues is moving material. All of the suppliers have great equipment, but we went with the Breton line so we would be able to move material without people. Material is moved every day to what is essentially a gigantic A-frame that rotates, and you can stack 12 slabs per side. A robot called a JOT grabs the slab, and most of the slabs are delivered to a Breton Combicut [CNC combination bridge saw/waterjet]. It has two tables, so there is no bottleneck; one job can be prepared as another is being cut, so there is a constant cycle. We also have power conveyors that move the material as well, so for approximately three-quarters of all material movement, nobody ever touches the stone.”
A digital process
From templating to routing, the entire production process is digital. “We use LT-55 templaters [from Laser Products Industries], and we are very happy with them,” Berry said. “For years before that, we actually did our templating the old-fashioned way. We did hard templates and digitized them, but the way we do it now is outstanding.”
Once the templates are electronically transmitted to the shop, they move on to programming. “We use AutoCAD, and there are several different Breton software programs that the plant runs on, depending on what we want to do,” Berry explained. “We photograph every single slab that is brought into the plant, and there are three different Breton [software] systems, all of which are integrated. AutoCAD is the only outside software that we use. A report goes out every day to our salespeople, and it shows exactly where in the process a job is.”
Berry added that the use of advanced technology goes beyond operating efficiency. “We actually use the Breton software as a sales tool,” he said. “The plant itself is actually a sales tool -- not just allowing customers to see what the plant will do, but the salespeople also use the layouts in the showroom and out in the field. We can give our customers a chance to see the tops before anything is ever cut, and this is especially important when you are talking about more exotic material. When [the programmers] do the layouts, two e-mails go out from the CAD room. One goes to the salesperson and shows everything that is left over, and the other goes to the customer and shows the countertops. I would say that probably only 5 to 10% want to tweak the layouts. They usually like what they see; they just want the comfort of being able to see it.”
Once a job is on the shop floor, the first step is cutting it to size on the Combicut. “That is a great machine,” Berry said. “From the Combicut, the JOT robot can grab the job from the table and drop pieces on a conveyor that will automatically move them to the CNC routers. From there, they are lifted by jib cranes, and that’s the only place where people will actually move the material. We have two [Breton] NC 400 double-table CNCs, and they are laser controlled as to where to put the pods.” All of the vacuum pods are from Blick, and the tooling is from Tyrolit. Meanwhile, the shop’s jib cranes are equipped with Manzelli vacuum lifters from GranQuartz.
In addition to the Breton equipment, the company has two Cougar bridge saws and two Pro-Edge edging machines, all from Park Industries. “They are generally used for commercial jobs, so we won’t interrupt the flow of the kitchen work,” Berry said. “We part out a section of the shop for large jobs, but the main shop does 90% or more of our work.”
In addition to creating a higher level of efficiency, the new system also allowed for production to take place in a smaller facility without losing productivity. “The plant was finished toward the end of 2007,” Berry said. “It took a lot of time to learn the plant, but I am glad now that we went through all of that. We moved from 110,000 square feet, and we can do just as much or more in 27,000 square feet. It is just compact.”
In all, the company has 50 employees, including 12 in the plant. While two of the plant employees are forklift drivers, many of the others can perform multiple roles. “I am a big believer in cross training, and I like having people who want to do multiple things,” Berry said. “We may assign someone a job, but in the case of the people who run the machines, we like to cross train them on all the machines, because these are people who are technically advanced. All of the jobs are designed in the CAD room, but to run the machines on the floor properly, you have to have some knowledge. We try not to have much turnover, and I have many people who have been here more than 20 years. It is tough to find good, competent people. We train in house because we do things differently than most shops. We also like promoting from within. Both of our forklift drivers want to learn how to operate machinery, so that’s what we are doing. We want to figure out opportunities to train them on machines.”
The capacity for the plant is 2,000 square feet over the course of an eight-hour shift. “Our overall rate varies on demand,” Berry said. “With this type of plant, it is really just a matter of how long the machinery runs.”
Looking to the future
Speaking on challenges, Berry said that in addition to the economic slowdown, the overall business climate is changing faster than it did a few years ago. “This is not just in our industry, but in any industry,” he said. “You don’t have time anymore to sit back and wait and see what happens. For 15 years, my biggest problem was, ‘How am I going to get all of this done?’ Of course, some change has been for the best. It weeded out a lot of competition, and we had so many homes going on that we didn’t focus on any part of our business. Our commercial work now is 20 to 25% of our business, and now we are focused on other areas.”
Berry said that he is optimistic for 2013 and beyond, and he gave specific reasons for his feelings. “Things are continuing to get better, and I think this is going to be a real turnaround year for a lot of people,” he said. “One, new housing starts in this area are really increasing. Two, for the first time in three years, we are seeing speculative homes being built. That is a big change for us. On the commercial side, we just signed a deal with a retirement community; we are doing nine of them in Texas this year, and also doing others in other parts of the country. We also have a health care project with four hospitals.”
U.S. Granite/Berry Marble & Granite is a charter member of the Artisan Group, a North American network of independent countertop professionals sharing best practices. “They are a great group of guys,” Berry said. “We are spread out enough that no one is really competing with one another, so we are sharing information. I have been to other shops [in the Artisan Group], and we have an open door policy as well. A lot of it is just talking; we all sit down and compare notes on equipment and everything else.”
As a member of the Artisan Group, U.S. Granite/Berry Marble & Granite is also in the process of achieving MIA Accreditation.
U.S. Granite/Berry Marble & Granite
Technology: LT-55 digital templaters from Laser Products Industries of Romeoville, IL; complete Breton automated material-handling plant; Breton Combicut bridge saw/waterjet combination; two Breton NC 400 CNC stoneworking centers equipped with vacuum pods from Blick Industries of Laguna Beach, CA, and tooling from Tyrolit; four Manzelli vacuum lifters from GranQuartz; two Cougar bridge saws and two Pro-Edge edging machines, all from Park Industries of St. Cloud, MN
Number of Employees: 50
Production Rate: 2,000 square feet over the course of an eight-hour shift