Fabricator Is Excited with ‘Sinking’ Profits

A north-central Texas solid surface fabricator realized that by using CNC technology to improve sink mounts, the company could install more sinks in less time using fewer router bits.

 

Woodworking and solid surface fabricators tend to develop a system for producing a profitable product and stick to that approach. But Abilene, TX-based INcounters, a solid surface fabricator, found that using CNC technology could not only help the company make more money by reducing job times, but also automated the production process, reduced product waste and lowered wear on tooling.

A Look At The ‘Norm’

Conventional wisdom in the solid surface community says that when installing a sink, a hole is rough-cut for mounting the sink using a wooden template. According to INcounters president Ed Wright, it is this process which has so many solid surface fabricators shying away from sink installation.

“Most fabricators cut templates from particleboard using a hand router that roughly describes the shape of a sink,” says Wright. “The template has to be considerably smaller than the hole that is actually required because the hand routing operation is so inaccurate.”

Following this, blocks are glued on the underside of the counter to hold the sink in place, Wright says. Once the glue is cured, the sink is mounted and the blocks are knocked out. After the blocks are knocked out, the remaining material must still be hand-routed out, at times as much as a 1/4-inch of material. According to Wright, it is a process that is tedious, as well as work- and labor-intensive.

“The entire job takes 30 to 40 minutes and requires the full attention of a skilled installer,” says Wright. “The process also produces a considerable amount of wear on the expensive bits required for finishing the counter.”

 

       
       
   

By using a CNC router to accurately machine the hole for a sink in solid surface material, INcounters has found a way to complete sink installation projects more quickly and profitably. Once the sink hole is cut, the sink will be mounted and glued without using blocks, and any remaining excess material will be removed using a hand router.
 

A New Way of Doing Things

INcounters came up with a new approach, utilizing a CNC router to more accurately hog out the hole. The company’s process mills a 1/16-inch lip under the counter to position the sink while it is glued. After the glue cures, Wright removes the last 1/16 inch of material with a hand router. According to Wright, the new approach takes half the time, requires much less manual labor and saves money on router bits.

Wright got the idea for the new method when he saw a Techno CNC router in operation at a boat manufacturer. “I saw that the company was cutting very complicated shapes with a high degree of accuracy on the router,” Wright says. “It made me wonder if the same technology could be applied to solid surface fabrication. I visited a dealer for the machine used at the boat manufacturer in Abilene and brought a few countertops to try out.”

The dealer showed Wright how to program the CNC router to cut out the sink holes. After that, the fabricator went to work to see how the machine would perform using solid surface material and was pleased with the results.

“It wasn’t very difficult,” says Wright. “You use a CAD program to define the geometry of the sink in two dimensions. Then we actually tried cutting a few counters. The accuracy of the cuts was better than anything I had ever seen.”

Wright also liked the fact that the machine operated on its own without the need for a skilled operator to attend it. That factor closed the door on any doubts he had about the machine’s practicality.

“I purchased one of the machines and had it delivered to my shop right away,” says Wright.

Technology Changes the Process

Once the router was delivered to the shop, INcounters had to find the most productive and effective ways to incorporate it into the company’s day-to-day operations. The machine’s delivery also forced Wright to take a look at how the company was installing sinks and look for new ways to streamline the process.

“I created programs to produce the holes for all of the sinks that we sell most frequently,” Wright says. “I also took a look at the existing method of holding the sink in position while it is being glued to the counter. The old method takes a considerable amount of time to accurately fasten the blocks in place, but this method is necessary because the hole itself isn’t accurate enough to use as a guide.

“With the router, on the other hand, we can make extremely accurate holes, making it unnecessary to use the blocks,” says Wright. “I started milling a lip on the underside of the counter that holds the outer edges of the sink in place. This positions the sink as it is glued in place, eliminating the need for blocks.”

Fine-Tuning the Operation

Wright fine-tuned his new process over several months of operation. He needed to find the most effective way to integrate the unit into the shop. But even more important was finding a way to program the CNC unit to accomplish the tasks the company had set out for it.

“The first step was finding the zero-zero point for starting the router," Wright says. “For each style of sink, we made a T-square out of Plexiglas. The T-square hooks onto the front end of the counter to position the axis that runs from the front to the back of the counter.

“The T-square has a hash mark that my operator lines up with the mark on the counter that centers the sink,” continues Wright. “The actual position is provided by a 1/2-inch hole that is put in the T-square. The operator just draws a circle using that hole as a guide that is used to set the reference point for the router.”

Once a program is installed, the actual use of the router to produce the countertop is relatively simple. The operator mounts the countertop onto the machine, selects the program that matches the model number, and then turns the machine on. This, according to Wright, is one of the biggest advantages of having CNC technology in a solid surface shop.

“My operator turns the machine on and lets it rip,” says Wright. “Then the operator can shift to a different job while the router cuts out the hole. The accuracy of the router allows us to trim the hole to within 1/16-inch.”

When the cutting operation is completed, the operator fits the sink into the lip and glues it, and then uses a hand router to remove the last bit of material from the counter. The entire process can be completed in 10 to 15 minutes, excluding the glue dry time.

“The high accuracy, ease of use and low cost of this machine was crucial to the success of this application,” Wright continues. “The machine features a positioning accuracy of ± 0.1 mm in 300 mm. This accuracy level is actually higher than what we need for sink installation.”

The ability to produce parts with tight tolerances proved to be a blessing in disguise, allowing the company to discover new applications for the machine. As a result, INcounters saw an increase in orders and entered areas of business the company was not involved in before.

The End Result: Success

Besides cutting the time required to mount sinks in half, Wright has also improved several other important fabrication jobs. He has developed a new business producing custom inlays for countertops using designs that are specified by the customer.

Often, the customer provides the design as a graphic file that Wright simply plugs into his program. In other cases, the design is provided on paper and Wright scans it into the computer. “We also do a considerable number of stove cut-outs with the router and are beginning to build a library of those as well,” Wright says. “Another area where the router is very useful is building drop edges for counter tops. It provides by far the best method we have ever found for producing tricky radius drop edges.”

Wright emphasizes that the CNC machine has been a huge factor in INcounters growth and that he expects even more success as CNC technology becomes more integrated in the solid surface industry.

“The success of this new method for mounting sinks has had a significant impact on my business,” says Wright. “We have expanded considerably since we first initiated the program, to the point that we now mount an average of three sinks per day.

“At first, the flood of new work presented a problem since no one had time to program new sinks,” adds Wright. “But my 18-year-old daughter, who recently graduated from high school, filled the gap by becoming my computer guru and lead programmer. In my opinion, CNC routers have so many benefits to offer the solid surface business that I doubt if there will be many shops without them in a few years.”

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