Stone World magazine asked different fabricators about their experiences with digital templating. We talked about not only the investment that is needed for this technology, but also about some of the benefits they experienced — some expected and some not. Participants included Caleb Breer of Crowne Kitchen and Bath in Oklahoma City, OK; Darryl Miller of USA Stone and Marble, located in Nashville, TN; and Dave Scott of Slabworks of Montana, located in Bozeman, MT.

SW: When did your company invest in digital templating and why did you decide to do it?

Breer: We started digitally templating about a year ago. We moved that way in preparation for a CNC machine in the future. We were looking to gain control of a complicated process and place many of the decisions and double checks in one person in the office instead of a template person in the field and the guys in the shop.

Miller: I first decided to invest in digital templating in early 2007. This is when I was in Baton Rouge, LA. Going digital reduced the amount of time I was at each job compared to stick templating with luan. The largest benefit was being able to template more jobs each day with the busy schedule we had at the time.

Scott: In 1997 or 1998, we moved into our facility to where we are now. We went from 2,000 square feet to 10,000 square feet. We started adding real equipment. Omag made this waterjet for a company in Spokane, WA, and that company had lost enough business to the point that they walked away from a machine that they had a sizeable deposit on. I heard a vendor say, “I got a guy that is trying to unload this waterjet and you should look at it.” I got a great deal on it and brought in a waterjet. We didn’t know what to do because it was a digital machine, and we didn’t know what to do, so we were forced into it. That’s how we started to look into it to make it work. We didn’t have a CNC router so we did it all analog to digital to analog. A few years later, in 2003 or 2004, we bought a CNC router and started to work still blocking and milling down and cutting out the sink on the waterjet and going to the CNC. That was still a cluster at best. After that, we finally got a digital templator, so we ended up doing the process backwards than most would.

SW: Since having digital templating equipment, have you received any benefits that you didn’t expect from it?

Breer: Using the CAD software to draw parts and make drawings for other projects from metal is a nice added benefit.

Miller: There were several benefits I didn’t expect. Once I got through the learning curve, I found that templating curves and around columns was so much easier and faster than stick templates. Not having to buy sheets of luan and cut them into strips, keeping them dry and handling large templates in the back of my truck was a welcome advantage.

Scott: The biggest thing is not having to deal with the stick templates and all the money that is associated with them. People commonly associate the cost of luan just to be the cost of the strips themselves. But there is more to it than that. You have to not only buy the wood template, but then you have to transport it; that costs gas and time. Now I can do a digital template and email it to myself, or to our other facility. There is no worry about transporting the wood templates or worrying if they may become damaged. I also don’t know if it’s a benefit — depends on how you look at it — but one thing I didn’t intend is the digital template to be so accurate. Sometimes the piece of countertop you cut is so accurate that it doesn’t actually fit in the space. It’s great to know how accurate you can get, but this is something you have to be aware of and plan for.

SW: Has digital templating increased efficiency and production rate at all?

Breer: In some ways it is efficient and others ways, for us currently, it is inefficient. An example of the efficiency is less time in the field, clear drawings to send to customers for sign offs etc. The inefficiency for us is plotting templates. Because we still operate a manual saw (Yukon II) we must send out CAD prepared files to a plotter which plots vinyl templates that we then superimpose on the slabs and mark out. This process takes a great deal of time, as well as the added expense of the template material itself.

Miller: Even though we were cutting manually at the time of the switch, I still saw the shop become more efficient with cutting time. Plotting the templates to vinyl made slab layouts with customers a lot easier and the shop could store them better than having piles of luan templates taking up space and causing unneeded clutter.

Scott: It helped cut down on errors for us. Because we have it go from the templator to the programmer, it formed a check and balance system that wasn’t there back in the day. If someone forgets an overhang or something, you have another guy now checking the work. It’s now two people looking at it from two different angles and that has really helped. It has brought our rework down quite a bit.

SW: Have you found it to lend credibility to your customers?

Breer: Yes. Standing in a sales call in a customer’s kitchen and telling them you’ll bring out your fancy laser to shoot their crooked walls always inspires consumer’s confidence in our ability to deliver their dream kitchen.

Miller: One benefit of digital templating that I did not expect was the reaction from customers. Most were amazed that this technology existed and were fascinated by it. This still holds true today with many of our customers. It gives them more confidence that we will measure the job correctly, and they realize that we are serious about what we do because we made the investment in technology. And since we can edit as needed, if the customer calls after the template has been done and wants to change the amount of overhand on their island top, it is simple to do in CAD.

Scott: I remember we got laughed at on one job by a 65-year-old carpenter that said how is that possibly going to work? He didn’t believe in digital templating until it was done and the countertop came out great. We don’t get that reaction as much as we used to, but it still happens. People will be skeptical sometimes of it, but then amazed by its results. It’s also a sales tool I can use now. When I can show them how their kitchen will look on the computer before it is done, that blows them away.

SW: Do you have any advice for a fabricator who is looking to invest in digital templating but isn’t sure yet?

Breer: The learning curve is steep and costly. We are very technology savvy, but learning something from scratch is difficult. I would estimate that we lost more than $10,000 of work product and materials remaking pieces that were laser templated or plotted incorrectly. After 10 months of use, we are pretty efficient now and it is nice to be able to track back to exactly what the issue was and how it happened when one does occur.

Additionally, for others considering digital templating, I would advise them to carefully consider their long-term goals. If going “fully digital” is not in the mix, then I would seriously consider staying with stick templates. The reasons for this are many, as mentioned above, the template vinyl costs us about $0.35 per square foot of tops produced, which is an increase over stick templating material. Also, you must not only have a template technician, you have the added cost of a CAD person in the office. However, if your future plans include having a digital machine to send the CAD files to, that will eliminate the need for vinyl template material and the CAD person you’ve been paying becomes even more valuable as they can program the CNC machine you now are employing.

In the end, it comes down to mindset. I’m of the mindset that the young granite industry (in America) is experiencing a technology boom, so the choice is to get on board or be left behind.

Miller: Some will say don’t waste your money on digital templating if you are cutting with a manual saw. Some say that plotting templates is a nightmare and a waste of time and money. My experience, 10 years with digital templating, has been completely different. It will help you in many ways, and it prepares you to enter the digital cutting/processing field when you are ready to step it up.

Scott: Unless you want to be a 100% manual shop, which is fine, there’s nothing wrong with that, you need to go to digital templating at some point. I don’t think it matters if you start with a digital templating system verses a CNC machine. We started with the waterjet before the templator, but there definitely is a certain logic with starting at the beginning of the job flow process, getting the templator first. The first thing you have to do is get a handle on your operation and where you want to go. You have to know where your bottleneck is in your business because the digital templator will probably move that bottleneck and you have to prepare for that. Some fabricators spend a lot of time looking for that one last piece of data to decide if they are going to invest in a piece of equipment, but they are never going to be able to find it. And some companies, like mine, don’t think about it beforehand and just jump into it. I don’t think either way is the best, but you have to evaluate what your biggest problems are in your shop and then decide how a digital templator may help with those problems.