Technology Surfaces at Solidtop Specialists
Automation gives South Florida shop the ability to fabricate Corian countertops
By Steve Baxter
There was a time when solid surface fabrication was characterized by a couple of guys arriving on a job site with sheets of material, circular saws, straight edges, hand routers and belt sanders. Then, after a couple of days spent in a cloud of dust, they would leave behind a high-end product achieved with a technology decidedly low on investment but high on elbow grease.
These days, however, the fabricator’s approach is more likely to resemble the cabinetmaker’s than the homebuilder’s. More of the work is done off-site, in a shop, even when the solid surface fabricators are responsible for the installation, which they often are.
What’s more, the equipment involved is likely to be a lot more sophisticated than what can be dragged to the job site. Many shops are investing in vertical panel saws and specialized machinery such as V-groovers, used to bend the edge of a countertop 90 degrees to provide the illusion of thickness.
Some solid surface shops are taking automation even further. Take Solidtop Specialists Inc., whose 25 employees operate out of a 10,000-square-foot facility in Deerfield Beach, FL.
The centerpiece of the company’s operation is a massive, custom-built CNC machining center designed to profile the exposed edges of countertops and to size and scribe the tops to match field-built templates.
“We build those templates as perfect as possible,” says Jim Manierre, company president. “Then we do everything possible in the shop to fabricate perfect countertops.”
A Cabinetmaker’s Reference
“Everything that we do here we do better than we could out in the field. Everything outside is that much farther out of our control. There are too many other trades involved, too many interruptions,” Manierre says.
Over the 12 years the company has been in business, this philosophy has not changed. What has changed, Manierre says, is “we keep narrowing our focus. When we started off we were fabricating in all the different brands (of solid surface materials). We were doing commercial and residential jobs. We were doing custom. We did everything.
“Now we’re down to new construction, working with production builders of single-family homes, and we work primarily in Corian,” he says. Eighty percent of the company’s countertops are for kitchens; the rest go into baths and home offices.
Solidtop limits its efforts, and its offerings, in other ways as well. Its market is confined to South Florida, extending only 50 miles to the south and 100 miles to the north of its Deerfield Beach base.
“We limit the color palate we offer, too,” Manierre says. “If we’ve had callbacks or dissatisfaction with a color, we make that color go away.” For example, he says, some of the darker colors require buffing to a higher sheen, which in turn necessitates more maintenance on the part of the unsuspecting homeowner.
In yet another effort to keep a tight focus on its operations, the company offers only four basic edge treatments and does not fabricate fancy inlays.
“With the wider focus there was no way to bring in a single piece of new equipment that was really going to be of benefit because we were just doing too much,” Manierre says. “As our focus narrowed, we started being able to bring in more and more sophisticated equipment.
“The first thing that we brought in was a (Striebig) vertical panel saw. As we got into more production, we added a second panel saw.” That led to a search for a CNC router, Manierre adds.
“I spent two years going around the country visiting shops that had machines,” he says. “Some were small custom shops; some were big production shops. Most were in the Midwest and the Northeast, far enough away that they didn’t mind showing me what they had, how they were using it and sharing their ideas about what not to do and what they wish they had done.”
At the end of his explorations, Manierre came to the opinion that there were no off-the-shelf machines that would fit the bill. So instead, “We laid out all the specifications for a custom-built machine,” he says, “because what we wanted nobody had. Three years ago, when we were drawing up the specifications, the router manufacturers didn’t really acknowledge the solid surface industry.”
Manierre commissioned Vytec to construct a CNC machining center with an 8-foot by 16-foot vacuum table — large enough to accommodate countertops for an entire kitchen at a time. The Vytec Conquest 9616 also has a 9-hp router head and an automatic tool-changing feature wherein the router selects the required profiling tools from a rack as directed by the software. It runs on Mastercam software by CNC Software.
In operation, the field-built templates are positioned upside down on the vacuum table, where a laser in the machining head locates and “digitizes” them, in effect redrawing the templates on the computer. Rudimentary designs, such as dead-square rectangular tops, can simply be entered into the program via the keyboard.
Next the countertop blanks — precut and built-up at the edges — are mounted on the table, also upside down.
“It’ll size them, shape them, do all the profiles, and do the cooktop and sink cutouts. If the tops need to be out-of-square then the router can do it,” Manierre says. He adds that the machining center delivers “a little bit of speed advantage but a lot of quality advantage. It prevents mistakes that otherwise might happen with hand work.”
In short, Manierre acknowledges CNC capability is a major weapon in his company’s ongoing battle to leave as little as possible subject to human error and to chance.
Even before the jobs are ready to measure, he says a company representative, who he describes as a “full-time roving ambassador,” regularly makes rounds to the various subdivisions in which Solidtops is active. The rover checks and notates the progress of the construction to see if it is on schedule and to ascertain whether what is being built matches the plans. Catching changes early on takes the guesswork out of material ordering.
When the cabinets have been installed on a given job and it is time to measure, one of the company’s crews, working out of Mitsubishi Fuso box trucks which have generators to supply power, arrives to build templates out of 1/8-inch plywood fastened with hot glue. All of the existing conditions and fixture locations are noted and recorded on the templates as well as on the trail of documentation started at bid time and continued by the subdivision rover. This way, should a homebuyer change his mind and request, say, a taller backsplash, another visit to the site to check for existing conditions is not necessary.
Back at the shop, the documents with these notes and dimensions accompany each countertop throughout the fabrication process. In addition to the identifying names and numbers in the documentation, each job is assigned a color as well. All of the parts for each job are then wheeled through the various work stations on carts painted the same color. This system reduces the likelihood of confusion when several jobs of identical or similar Corian material are built in succession, Walsh says.
He summarizes the progression of these color-coded parts carts as follows:
First the “decks” or main surfaces of the countertops of the 30-in. by 145-in., 12-in.-thick Corian sheets are sized on one of the two 16-foot-long Striebig panel saws.
Indented from the perimeter of the deck undersides, 1-in.-thick strips of solid poplar are fastened to the solid surface material with silicone adhesive. These strips will accept the screws the installers use to fasten the tops to the cabinetry.
Next the edges of the decks are built up with three thicknesses of the Corian. The strips of solid surface material are joined with a two-part Corian bonding material and clamped. The countertops are then ready for final sizing and profiling on the CNC machine. The heavy tops are positioned on the CNC bed with the aid of a vacuum lift.
Finally, the tops are sanded and buffed with portable sanders and loaded on the installation trucks. Solidtop Specialists builds countertops for about six kitchens a day.
Finishing the Job
Any countertops too big for two men to handle are sent to the jobsite in sections.
“Even if it’ll fit in the truck in one piece and get through the doors of the house in one piece, we don’t want the guys out there hurting themselves,” Manierre says. “It only takes 30 minutes to do a field seam.”
By the time the installation crew arrives, the house is nearly complete. “We’re the last major trade in there,” Manierre says. “Everything after us is just finish.”
This is the time when builders and their customers are most likely to be chomping at the bit. Large tract builders are known for operating on notoriously short deadlines subject to frequent, if not capricious, adjustments.
Error-free work facilitated by technology is how Solidtop Specialists thrives in this demanding market.
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