Taking the Easiest Approach to the Hardest Jobs
Solid surface knowledge and offering a wide variety of products keeps Sterling Surfaces' sales growing.
By Sam Gazdziak
With a reputation for high-quality solid surface fabrication, Sterling Surfaces is a company that solid surface manufacturers recommend when a difficult job comes along.
Take New York City's Grand Central Station renovation, for example. Designer David Rockwell of the Rockwell Group designed 20 chairs and four loveseats for a dining concourse. They had to be made of a material that had the right look but also could withstand day-to-day use. He thought that solid surface material would work if it could be thermoformed to the dimensions he needed.
"He talked to DuPont and asked if the material could be thermoformed, and DuPont recommended us, because they knew that we had that kind of ability," says Grant Garcia, managing director of the Sterling, MA-based fabricator.
Sterling Surfaces was established in 1984 and is a division of Kitchen Associates, the largest custom kitchen showroom in New England. It makes all the countertops for Kitchen Associates, and that volume of work has allowed the company to steadily grow, acquiring more high-tech machinery and experience in solid surface fabrication.
With some 25 employees, Sterling has expanded over the years to also build residential and commercial surfaces, work with architectural millwork houses and make components for a furniture manufacturer. "We don't really have any slow times, and I think part of that is that we are diversified," Garcia says. "We've chosen to focus not just on one thing but to create several niches in the solid surface industry."
Sterling Surfaces is able to take on difficult projects in part because of the machinery it has. This includes a five-year-old Busellato CNC point-to-point machining center from Delmac Machinery Group. It has been customized to take on the rigors of machining solid surface material with heavier rails and automatic dust gates.
"We were worried about how the router would stand up," says Eric Kemp, Sterling's production manager. "They helped us out getting a heavier machine, and it's worked really great on solid surface."
The point-to-point is fed AutoCAD drawings that either come from designer's specifications or a Northern Engineering & Manufacturing Inc. digitizer. Templates of parts are made of heavy paper or Masonite. Kemp then traces the outline of the template with the digitizer and its computer records the dimensions. Kemp just adds the layers and tool paths in AutoCAD to complete the program.
The company also has two Striebig vertical panel saws. Sterling bought the first saw 10 years ago, and it allowed workers to cut sheets of solid surface material that they were going to join together without any further machining. Garcia says that the first saw paid for itself within the first few months of use, so he added an automatic saw when the company outgrew the first one.
Good machinery still needs good operators and a good plan of action when a complex job like the Grand Central chairs comes along. Garcia says Sterling is known in the industry for developing innovative custom products with production methods.
"We have a reputation in the solid surface industry for taking difficult custom-oriented things and little by little creating a production method for them," he says. "We have an excellent crew, and all of us think very much the same way, not turning away something or saying something can't be made on a production basis just because it turns out to be complex or difficult in nature."
Sterling spent three months developing a process to produce the chairs and another four months to actually machine them. The team who worked on the chairs made them on a production basis, machining all the parts before thermoforming them. Each chair is composed of 16 parts made of Corian solid surface.
Thermoforming solid surface material is nothing new to Sterling. For a previous job working for an architectural millwork firm, it formed 40-foot high column wraps for the Foxwoods Resort Hotel in Connecticut. It also thermoforms parts for a Corian-and-stainless-steel chair designed by Matthew Hoey.
Sterling also thermoforms dining room tabletops for Saloom Furniture of Winchendon, MA. Sterling has been manufacturing furniture components for Saloom for almost 10 years, but the new line of tabletops has thermoformed edges instead of built-up edges.
"The alternative would be actually gluing solid surface onto the bottom of the sheet and building it up to the thickness you want," explains Garcia. "We'd machine that to create the edge. By thermoforming, we're able to create thickness by bending the material down, and that's how we've cut some of the cost out of it."
Sterling's thermoforming process is done by first heating the solid surface in a Polytherm 3000-5 platen oven by Norford Industries. The material is heated to a temperature of about 160-ÃâÃÂ¦ Celsius and is then moved to a vacuum table.
The Norford vacuum table uses either a male or female form, or sometimes both for multi-directional bending. Once the hot material is laid on the mold, a vacuum blanket lowers. The air is then evacuated, and the solid surface material bends with the mold and hardens.
In the case of the Grand Central Station chairs, the molds also had to be constructed to come apart, so they would not get locked in the solid surface. After workers thermoformed and trimmed all the pieces, they assembled the chairs like a jigsaw puzzle, says Garcia. Despite the fact that the chair is made of so many parts, it looks like one solid piece.
Sterling employees also built wooden skeletons to support the solid surface shell of the chairs. They added ballast to the inside of the chair to prevent tipping and filled the inside with a polyurethane foam to lock in the substrate.
It averaged about 80 man-hours to make one chair or loveseat, but the fact that they were made at all was a surprise to even the solid surface manufacturer.
"There were some in DuPont who didn't think it could be done," Garcia says. "They didn't think that Corian could be thermoformed to that tight of a compound radius, let alone construct a complete thermoformed shell.
"That's been a nice project, because it has opened designers' eyes as to what can be done with solid surface. It's more than flat panels, flat surfaces. It can take on shape and do a lot of things," he adds.
Along with its success in the components, millwork and furnituremaking industries, a sizable portion of its sales, which totaled $3.4 million in 1999, came from countertops.
With Sterling's high-tech machinery, it can give a new look to conventional kitchen tops. It can make a multi-colored countertop with two solid surface materials or an epoxy inlay. It can also match a kitchen with its surroundings.
One kitchen the company worked on has a backsplash that looks to be made of tile. Actually, it is a solid sheet of Corian that has been grooved to look like tile. Both backsplash and countertop have matching diamond patterns.
Another countertop was designed for a kitchen with flowered wallpaper. Sterling had a copy of the flower pattern laser engraved into the countertop. The engraved surface was then filled with epoxy resins to recreate the wallpaper pattern.
Sterling Surfaces will continue to expand beyond the kitchen. Garcia says the bathroom market also has great potential for the solid surfacing industry. "With solid surface being used on the wall of shower surrounds, you eliminate a lot of those grout lines," he says. "It's much easier to maintain. We have shower pans that we also make out of Corian, and those are really popular with people, even though they're fairly high-priced. Because it's non-porous, it also solves a lot of maintenance that people have."
As the products have become more varied, the methods of production have become more fine-tuned.
"We have introduced an industrialized process flow into our operation," Garcia says. "It has helped us not only produce more efficiently, but it's also helped us in terms of finding labor. Now, we can find somebody who's not a full-fledged fabricator, and we can start them in one segment of our operation. They learn that segment, and then they become familiar with other parts of the process." The process has been successful - Garcia says Sterling has grown by an average of 10 percent a year over the last four or five years without really adding anyone new.
Growth has also come from experimenting with solid surface to learn about its constraints as well as its possible uses. "We're opening up new frontiers as we learn about this, with the help of manufacturers and our own experience that we gained from learning and experimenting. We've come up with a knowledge base that lets us know that we can do this and can't do that. And thus we can feed that to the designers and help them design new products with it," he says. He adds that Sterling's employees sometimes sit in on customers' design meetings in order to help them develop those products.
Garcia also sees growth potential in working closely with architectural millwork companies. "It helps us integrate our product with their project management," he says. "It makes for a much smoother flow of solid surface materials to the market."
Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.