Rick Self started his path in the stone industry in 1999 with an impulsive purchase of a Flow Waterjet – no knowledge, no customers, no contacts, no real thought going in. The ups and downs that followed eventually led him to a position with Terminator Diamond Products in 2018. “What started as an intention to build a waterjet shop turned into a series of choices that took me from cutting steel to creating marble intarsia work to fabricating countertops to learning the supply side of our industry, and finally to business development at Terminator,” he explained. “I often think, ‘What a long strange trip it’s been.’ And if I may, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that my better half, Molly, has been alongside from the start. She’s become quite accomplished on the slab side of our industry.”

Stone World recently spoke with Self on a variety of topics regarding the industry, as well as Terminator. Here’s what he had to say:

SW: For Terminator, in particular, how has COVID affected your company? What changes have you had to make?

RS: First, it’s no secret that 2020 has been a difficult yet profitable year for many in our industry, and that the word “difficult” now carries with it a wide range of meanings, including very real pain for some. That said, we retrenched when COVID first hit, quickly pulling everyone off the road. We went from the middle of March through late May without being able to follow our business model, but we were able to use this time to ensure that everyone on our team was supplied with the PPE they needed in order to do their jobs safely. By June 1st, we were back out and visiting customers. In the most practical of terms, Terminator Diamond Products is a small business. We have just over a dozen people working in the U.S., including ownership. Thus, our primary challenge has been to keep everyone healthy, and by extension, our families and our customers. This is made more difficult because half of our team is mobile -- reps stationed throughout the country with small warehouses on wheels. Yes, we know it is unrealistic to say that we can make everyone immune, but by taking the advised precautions, we can all but eliminate the risks associated with what we do, including in-person visits. The same applies to our manufacturing facilities in South Korea and Italy – take the precautions, stay healthy and keep producing.

SW: From your customers, what adjustments have they had to make during this time to survive (and thrive) during COVID?

RS: It’s difficult to answer this, and what we have seen to date may not apply come tomorrow. In general, it’s been apparent that some of our customers have had to alter their business model, specifically in terms of the market segments they target, and it is also apparent that the COVID-related operational strategies we’ve seen employed are as varied as one would expect.

SW: What are some of the challenges you have faced with supply chains? How have you overcome them?

RS: So far, we have been able to weather the supply chain challenges that are out there, namely those related to international shipping and availabilities of raw materials. COVID shutdowns of factories being another story altogether. The shipping issues are especially frustrating – what used to be a reliable three-day or four-day air transit has turned into something akin to throwing darts at a tiny very expensive calendar from 20 yards, with no flight guidance!

No, things aren’t perfect, but the delays have been manageable because we’ve been upfront with our customers. From our perspective, the biggest thing is having, and setting, realistic expectations, particularly in terms of stock requirements. This applies equally to us at Terminator and our customers.

We might not like it, but no one is immune from the disruptions in today’s supply chain. There is no way around reality right now, and it would be dishonest to say that any sort of “just-in-time” methodology is not dicey. We have recommended that everyone adjust their expectations related to purchasing, and therefore their operations, accordingly.

SW: It seems like one of the things that has gained traction during this time is the idea of going automated or fully automated? Have you seen that? Has it led into an increase of Zares purchases?

RS: No doubt, automation is the primary driver of our business right now, but this trend did not start with COVID. Just ask any of the machine manufacturers – the idea of going fully automated has long been in the making. As a matter of fact, it’s already been four years since we introduced Zares. Then again, saying that automation is the goal might be a bit of a distortion. Cost-effective efficiency, from cutting to finishing, is what everyone is after, with automation having its place. But call it whatever, from our perspective 2020 has definitely amped demand for machines that can automate processes, and we are now seeing shops that have a long history of hand only fabrication turn to CNC routers in the hopes of producing finished work without any hand polishing. I guess you could say that it looks like a lot of folks are ready to have machines carry out our decisions, if not make the actual decisions. And yes, we have seen a substantial uptick in Zares sales – big shops and small shops, alike. I do think the pressures of 2020 have left most with no choice but to produce finished work as efficiently as is possible.

SW: Speaking of the Zares, how does it help fabricators who are looking to go more automated?

RS: The quick answer is, Zares (now Zares III) is usually the final piece of the puzzle for CNC shops looking to make the jump from fabricator to manufacturer. The more specific answer is: Zares was built for our industry. It was designed to eliminate the margin of error that naturally comes along with the manual calibration of CNC tool sets, and it achieves this accuracy at breakneck speeds.

For those looking to automate, below are the benefits of Zares III:

1. Off-line calibration, thereby freeing CNC machines to produce – no more down time because the CNC is busy calibrating tools.

2. An experienced user can scan a set of tools in less than 10 minutes; 6 minutes is not unheard of; 25 minutes, including typical dressing (also off-line). For a new set of seven tools, including mounting the tools to cones, dressing and scanning, an experienced user can accomplish the entire setup in 45 minutes or thereabouts. A single scan takes all of 4.5 seconds on the Zares III.

3. Eccentricity diagnosis. Ever run a new tool that appears to have inconsistent contact with the stone? More times than not this issue, “runout,” is caused by either (a) the tool not being centered onto the cone, (b) the tool itself being out-of-round and or (c) the cone being out of tolerance and thereby causing the assembly to wobble. These issues are easily diagnosed during Zares scanning. Checking for eccentricity of both tools and cones was a fundamental feature built into Zares from the very beginning.

4. Direct machine integration, thereby allowing Zares to seamlessly connect to the CNC routers. Zares does not discriminate – one router or 10 – it will integrate with all of the major brands of CNC routers.

5. Tool Management. Via its integration, Zares has the ability to track tool life, both in terms of calibration intervals and EDM intervals. This feature brings to life the adage, “if you can measure it, then you can manage it.”

6. Zares works for all manufacturers of tools – again, Zares does not discriminate. Better yet, Zares can produce its own drawings when needed, so you do not need manufacturer drawings in order to scan your tools.

In summary, Zares gives you the ability to have perfectly calibrated tools – the first requirement of producing finished work. It can extend the life of your tools. It frees your CNC machines to produce. It tracks the tool data, and it does all of this very, very quickly. Anybody looking to automate owes it to themselves to investigate Zares III.

SW: Looking toward 2021, what changes are you seeing in the industry? What will be different? The same?

RS: Sometimes, this year in particular, we need to look back in order to look forward. Last January, we had the good fortune of being able to speak at Cosentino’s 2020 North American “C100” Convention – the second week of January, before the first COVID cases were diagnosed in the U.S. In thinking about your question for 2021, I revisited our C100 words, and I believe our sentiment then might be even more applicable today. We’d like to share a few of those words again: I think it safe to say that your challenges involve turning uncertainty into certainty. Therefore, the question: How does one uncomplicate? In this year that is 2020 2021, how do we overcome our obstacles of complication? How do we move forward knowing that the years to come are sure to bring change even quicker than the years that just were? These are, in their essence, the exact same questions that we at Terminator ask ourselves. These are the issues that drive us to innovate – to think outside the box – to be THE cutting edge of premium diamond tooling... Whatever the coming years are sure to bring, it is our job to help you turn uncertainty into certainty.

I suspect that 2021 will be about achieving some sense of certainty. In other words, the challenges we face are not going to disappear overnight. Some will probably worsen, thus being able to mitigate as many obstacles as possible is likely to be our common theme. In terms of how we will go about doing this, we will focus on eliminating distractions. We will streamline processes. We will do our best to buffer our inventories, and we will continue to innovate. I think this will be the common denominator for all of us – manufacturer, supplier and fabricator, alike.