Once again, a select group of members from the Stone Fabricator’s Alliance (SFA) headed to Italy this past March to visit many of the leading stone producers and manufacturers of tooling and machinery. The 2015 edition marked the trip’s fifth anniversary, and it provided an opportunity for participants to learn about the latest advances in technology, as well as to experience the sites, culture and cuisine of Italy.

The trip was organized with the collaboration of Tenax, and included 15 eager fabricators. Stone Worldwas also fortunate to have an invitation to the tour. Each stop was not only an educational experience, but a chance for the fabricators to talk with company members, who each demonstrated Italian hospitality.

On its website, the SFA describes itself as “an organization comprised of fabrication and restoration professionals from around the world.” It explains that its objective is “to provide the resources necessary to enable our members to prosper by improving their quality of fabrication and restoration methods and practices. We do this by sharing information, skills and techniques all for the good of the hard working professionals that make up this fantastic industry.”

And the week-long trip definitely allowed participants to take advantage of their time together. Long bus rides provided time for the fabricators to discuss business and learn from each other. “The group I traveled with was awesome — so many different backgrounds — yet so many similarities on what we deal with daily in the stone business,” said Dave Syverson, vice president of Syverson Tile & Stone in Sioux Falls, SD.  “It was a very humbling experience as you get to see and touch impeccable craftsmanship and visit amazing companies with some cutting-edge technology that is truly changing the industry worldwide. I thought the trip was an incredible game-changing event in which I not only learned a ton about the Italian stone industry, but it was also really cool to meet the owners and their families as most of them were family owned companies. It’s fun as a family businessman to see that and connect with them.”   

“What stayed in my mind most about the trip was the hospitality that everyone showed us,” said Chris Mills of Champion Stone in Scranton, PA. “We were treated like rock stars. It was incredible. There was a lot to learn from the trip, but being a stone guy you would think that visiting the shops would not ‘drop my jaw,’ but it did. To see stone fabrication from start to finish in the ‘major league’ was inspiring.”

Along with the fabricators, John Thomas, regional sales manager for Tenax USA, was aboard the bus. “I thought that the fabricators who attended were all first class,” he said. “It is nice to see people from all over the U.S. and Canada that enjoyed each other’s company as this group did. At the visit to Tenax’s factory, each one was engaged and asking many questions about our products. They were surprised that we offer so many products. Each one said to me how amazing this trip was — from the cities and small towns, to the beauty of each one, to the incredible food and wine that we enjoyed. The SFA group should be very proud of how well this group represented the organization.”

Venice and beyond

The trip couldn’t have started off in a more beautiful setting than Venice, Italy, which is the capital of northern Italy’s Veneto region. For many in the group, it was their first time to Italy, and they were taken with the spectacular sites along the canals of the country’s most unique city.

A one-night stay in Venice gave participants a chance to relax and acclimate to the new time zone. It also presented the opportunity to explore the city and all it has to offer.

The next day, the group boarded the bus, and their adventure began. The first stop was Lapitec’s new headquarters in Vedelago, Italy. As the result of the technical and technological partnership with Breton S.p.A, the company is a producer of large-sized “full bodied” sintered stone slabs.

Michele Ballarin, director of sales and marketing for Lapitec, greeted the group and led a tour through the company’s state-of-the-art processing plant. “In 2001, Breton’s R&D department produced the first slab of Lapitec,” explained Ballarin. “Lapitec is sintered stone. It combines the nice qualities of porcelain with natural stone.”

According to Ballarin, the plant, which sits on 1 million square feet of property, was completed in 2011, and the first slab was shipped in December of 2012. “For seven months we only sold to the northern part of Italy,” he said. “The material is now available worldwide. It was officially introduced to the U.S. at KBIS (Kitchen & Bath Industry Show) this year. This is definitely not a product you are going to find in Home Depot or Lowes. We aren’t going for ‘Big Box’ stores. We are going for the A&D community.”

Lapitec’s facility runs 800 feet in length, and it has been designed with the future in mind. The kiln that is currently in place has the capacity to produce 240 slabs per day, and space is available for a second kiln to be installed, when needed. The entire plant is designed to produce up to 480 slabs a day, explained Ballarin.

Lapitec is available in 10 colors and four textures, and it is considered to be graffiti resistant. A demonstration was held for the fabricators to illustrate that a mineral thinner can remove any permanent marker on the surface.

The next stop on the first official day of the tour was the Tyrolit Group — a worldwide manufacturer of bonded grinding, cutting, sawing, drilling and dressing tools and a system supplier of tools and machines for the construction industry. A family run business since 1919, the group includes Swarovski.

While at Tyrolit, the fabricators had the opportunity to walk through the factory to see where the tools were being produced. The company manufactures an extensive standard range of profiles and diameters as well as a complete custom profile service. Additionally, it was explained that Tyrolit offers a full factory re-profiling service to optimize tool life.

Neighboring Tyrolit is ADI (Industrial Diamond Application) — a world leader in the diamond tool manufacturing field for stone, ceramic, glass mechanics and the optical industries. The company was founded in 1980 in Thiene (Vicenza), and today has approximately 150 employees.

Upon arrival, the group was welcomed by Carlo Artina, stone division manager, who explained that ADI’s stone division comprises almost 50% of the company’s sales. “The strength of ADI is we have a lot of molds,” said Artina. This allows the company to be prepared for any type of tool order. “Sometimes we make a mold that we only use for two to three months, and then we have a bullnose that we use a lot more.”

With ultra compact surface material, such as Lapitec, becoming more popular, ADI recently developed a new tool for this market. The UHS CNC router provides zero vibration, controlled wear, no shipping and a great cost/performance ratio, Artina explained to the group of fabricators.

World-leading stone suppliers

The first of several large Italian stone operations that were incorporated into the SFA’s tour this year was Margraf in Vicenza, Italy. The group was impressed with the company’s extensive slab warehouse, as well as the custom stone pieces it produces for projects worldwide.

“We own 12 quarries, but we can’t survive with just the quarry materials because the market is asking for so many different types of material,” explained Alberto Tezza, export manager, adding that Margraf’s marble quarries are in Italy, Croatia and Slovania. “We keep about 150 different types of marble in stock. Our main clients are distributors.

“We buy blocks from quarries all around the world,” Tezza went on to say. “We rarely buy slabs. We run a double shift every day with the gangsaws. We do about 3,000 square meters per day.”

At the time of the SFA’s visit, Margraf was working on a large commercial project in Russia. Additionally, it had recently completed work for the Financial Center in front of the Freedom Tower in New York City.

After Margraf, the bus headed to Verona, Italy, where the group stayed for two nights — visiting a range of companies in the area. Citco was born as a trading company in 1990, owner Camiran Rasool told the fabricators. “In 2006, we started our own production,” he said. “It was the best thing that could happen.

“We didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing,” Rasool went on to explain. “We tried to show people what can be achieved with marble. Showing architects was difficult at first. Now we do a lot of custom work and design pieces.”

At the time of the SFA’s visit, Rasool talked about the company bidding on several U.S. projects in New York, NY, and Miami, FL. He also mentioned that Citco had plans to open its own showroom in the Miami Design district this past spring.

While touring Citco’s processing plant was interesting, the fabricators were in awe when they reached the company’s downstairs showroom. Citco has partnered with several leading architects, such as Iraqi-born Zaha Hadid, to produce their unique — and often oversized — works of stone art. The downstairs showroom, which was completed in 2012, is set up like an art gallery — allowing visitors to take their time to view the innovative stone displays.

The SFA continued its tour of stone production facilities with Cereser — an Italian stone distributor celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Based in Verona, Italy, Cereser operates out of a 400,000-square-foot covered facility with four pavilions.

According to Beau Usselman, North American sales manager, Cereser offers approximately 450 different colors, as well as custom finishes. “It changes constantly depending on the region,” he said.

A total of 40% of the company’s market is the U.S. “We have a bar code on every slab that says ‘Made in Italy,’” said Usselman.

Cereser makes a special effort to offer its customers a wide selection of top-of-the-line and often unique material. “We are growing, but don’t want to grow too much,” explained Sales Manager Mirco Biasio. “We want to focus on quality. We try to convince quarriers to sell us the best material.”

In addition to its bountiful selection of stone varieties, Cereser also promotes a comprehensive collection of finishes. The company’s most recent collections — Pixel, Rigato and Skin — offer a range of textures and unique aesthetic surface looks which can enhance any project design.

More in the Verona region

On the second day in Verona, the group started out with a visit to Fraccaroli & Balzan. Founded in 1969, the sons of the owners now run the water filtration system business. “We used to do stone-processing equipment, but over the years we began to focus on water recycling plants,” explained Andrea Giglioli, area manager.

According to Giglioli, 85% of the company’s production goes to other countries, with 10% of that being to North America. “We can provide a full range of [water filtration] plants,” he said. “We have a small plant specifically designed for the U.S. market.”

During their visit, the fabricators learned of some of the advantages of using a Fraccaroli & Balzan system. These include:

• Less cost for mud disposal

• Less sludge volume to treat

• Recovery of water up to 98%

• Mud dehydration up to 85%

• Plants in compliance with environment regulation

• Fully automatic installations

Giglioli explained that the company is presently working with Salem Stone and Miles Supply in the U.S. for those looking to purchase a system.

Throughout their stay in Italy, the group was escorted by Tatiana Savoia and Daniele Scasserle, both of Tenax, who did an incredible job of organizing the entire trip — from arranging appointments with the various companies to logistics to tracking down lost luggage. Overall, Tenax was a gracious host, providing lunch at its facility on several occasions when the group was in the area.

On its “official” visit to Tenax’s facility, the group had the opportunity to tour the plant and the company’s laboratory. The Tenax staff was welcoming and eager to talk with the fabricators and show them some of their most popular, as well as newest, products.

Among the latest product developments is Mastidek, a new generation bi-component resin used to glue Dekton by Cosentino. Tenax has matched all of the colors of Cosentino’s Dekton product. Two different products are available for indoor and outdoor use.

Additionally, the Tenax staff also showed the fabricators another new introduction, Tenax Vigor Poly-Epoxy, which has a very transparent light color, is easy to mix and spread, and yet does not drip off the edge when working in vertical applications. The product is ideal for laminating and seaming all types of stone, including granite, marble, engineered stone, quartz and quartzite. The fabricators were also told Tenax Vigor Poly-Epoxy creates an extremely strong bond within minutes.

After the visit to Tenax, the group was on its way to Quarella, a more than 40-year-old marble and quartz agglomerates business. Alessandra Godi of the company’s marketing department greeted the fabricators and gave them an overview of Quarella. She explained that the quartz slabs are made individually, while the marble agglomerate is produced in block form and then sliced into slabs.

Godi explained that Quarella controls a significant amount of its material. “We make our own polyester resin,” she said. “That’s very important. We control everything from the beginning to the end. The marble [we use] only comes from the north of Italy.” Quarella carries out a policy focused on environmental sustainability of its products so that they are able to comply with certain parameters required by LEED® certification system.

On its third and final day in Verona, the SFA tour began with a visit to Montresor. The Italian manufacturer of stone fabrication equipment, which is represented by Salem Stone in the U.S., knew just how to grab the attention of the fabricators so bright and early in the morning. Nine edge polishers were on display, and the fabricators had the opportunity to witness several machines in operation.

Two representatives, Mike Willard and Doug Mangus, from Salem Stone of Winston-Salem, NC, were on hand to demonstrate the machines to the fabricators and answer any of their questions. One of the machines, which debuted at Coverings the next month, was the Luna 740 L edge polisher. In addition to its normal heads, the machine also has three extra oscillating and adjustable heads, which assists in the increase of production.

The two-hour period allotted for Montresor’s visit went by quickly for the fabricators. They moved from one machine to the next — watching the capabilities of each and excitedly discussing what they saw with each other.

The final stop in Verona was long awaited for many of the fabricators in the group. Antolini has become a worldwide brand for natural stone, and to say its facility is impressive is an understatement. The family owned business dates back to the 1920s, and it is continually inspiring design and pushing the limits of creativity with its stone products.

The SFA group had the opportunity to stroll the seemingly endless aisles of Antolini’s Stone Gallery, which was opened in the fall of 2014, just in time for the international stone exhibition, Marmomacc. The large slab facility is stocked with more than 1,200 different materials.

While in the gallery, the fabricators received a special surprise, when owner Alberto Antolini came to say hello and pose for a picture with the group. During their visit to Antolini, the group also toured the company’s production areas and well as its Lifestyle room, which is a majestic underground showroom of exotic stone applications.

“The top pick for me, without a doubt, would be Antolini,” said Mills, when speaking about his favorite part of the trip. “All I can say is you have to see it to believe it. From the raw slabs in his yard to his ‘invitation only’ showroom — it’s one in a million.”

The machinery finale

After spending the majority of several days with stone producers and suppliers in the Verona region, the tour went to Cremona, Italy, to visit Comandulli. The company was founded by Ernesto Comandulli in the early 1970s, when he patented his own concept for an edge polishing machine.

Today Comandulli produces approximately 300 machines annually, and exports a large percentage of them to the U.S. Ivano Tirapelle, who handles North American sales for the company, showed the fabricators Comandulli’s newest machine, the Omega 60 — an edge polishing machine with conveyor belt that is ideal for high production.

SFA members were able to tour Comandulli’s plant — observing how machines are put together and watching them in action. Tirapelle also explained to the group how machines can be customized to meet specific individual needs.

In Bergamo, the group had the opportunity to visit CMS Brembana’s new facility, which opened the previous summer. The company welcomed the fabricators with a lunch at its office before giving them the tour of its plant. With 150 employees, CMS Brembana has already grown out of its new building, and plans are already in the works to buy a new building nearby for production. The company is doing this so it doesn’t slow delivery time of the machines.

Of CMS Brembana’s lineup of machinery, the CNC Speed is the most popular in the U.S. It is available in both three and four axis. The Maxima 5-Axis is also selling well in the U.S. market.

The company used to make machines in the U.S. about 20 years ago, but it has realized it doesn’t make sense financially to do that anymore, so all production is in Italy.

Last but not least, the eighth day of the SFA 2015 tour ended with a visit to GMM in Gravellona Toce, Italy. The highlight of the visit was a stop to a local fabrication shop, which is equipped with GMM machinery. The fabricators enjoyed watching their Italian counterparts work. Being in the shop sparked conversation among the group and with Taf Wharton, GMM U.S.A. president .

After the visit to the fabrication shop, the group headed back to GMM’s facility where they had a chance to walk-through the machine manufacturer’s factory and meet the owner, Corrado Franzi. GMM also had a farewell lunch prepared at their facility before the fabricators set out for Milan to fly back to the U.S.