After seeing what a CNC machine could do in a  countertop shop in the area, Dave Elsie, owner of  Tops Plus in Quincy, Ill., became convinced that technology was the way to go.

Not wanting to buy more machine than he needed or could afford, Elsie chose to buy  ETemplate software with a  ShopBot PRS 60 x 144 CNC router with 3-hp spindle in May 2007. The technology has ended up doubling his production, shortening his install times, improving accuracy and opening up other opportunities.

"I never really knew what was going to happen when I got this system," says Elsie. The theory of taking a picture and being able to measure something was a new concept to him.

Quick and accurate

Before it took one week to measure, cut, trim and install countertops for 1 1/2 kitchens. With the ETemplate/ShopBot system in place the shop can do a kitchen countertop in a day or less. Every step of the way, time is saved.

With the ETemplate measuring system of stickers, measuring markers and a digital camera the template time has been cut from 1 1/2 hours to 20 minutes. The time to process the pictures is less than 15 minutes, and most of the 15 minutes is computer processing time. The cost of measuring a kitchen is also reduced from about $23 for template board used to make stick templates to $3 for the stickers.

When it comes time to cut countertops, the ShopBot reduced the time from five hours to 20 minutes. "The machine goes so fast that you can't keep up with it," says Elsie. Of course there are still jobs that require forming and fitting by hand.

Faster installs

The system has also cut down installation time from five to three hours. The reason for quicker installation is that the countertops fit better. When the shop used stick templates the accuracy just wasn't as good as the new system. "You don't get the ins and outs of the wall at all," says Elsie.

With stick templates, the templates could come apart in the truck or the glue can fail and it can fall apart. "You're second-guessing yourself on sometimes 1/8 or 1/4 inch and that could result in a lot more work on the job," says Elsie.

"We don't have to work as hard, the jobs get finished on time and every piece is cut and glued together and the accuracy is 100 times better than a stick template. Everything fits well and it makes the whole thing come together better."

Before using this technology, the shop would overcut seams by about 1/2 inch. "Now we cut our seams to fit and we don't pull a router out of the truck to cut the seams down," he says.

How it works

The ETemplate system consists of software and a calibrated Canon ProShot digital camera as well as stickers and measuring markers. The stickers act as a kind of barcode based on a 12-bit system. The photos work off of triangulation, similar to GPS and require three points of measuring and different angles. "You have to have 15 points in every picture and you need to overlap six points in each picture," says Elsie.

Although Elsie takes some measurements with a standard measuring tape, those numbers are for verification and to double-check the accuracy. Once the stickers and reference markers are set in place, photos are taken with the digital camera from a number of angles.

When countertops are measured for a remodel one element that is really advantageous is that the old countertop can stay put until the new one is fabricated and ready to install. "There's a little metal bracket that comes with it that touches the bottom of the counter. It doesn't matter if your old countertop is out of square. You're measuring to the cabinets so your overhang is all the same," says Elsie. "The program actually gives you a levelness and flatness of your cabinets and it gives you square footage and lineal footage."

Once the photos are all taken, they are downloaded into a computer CAD program. With this system you click on countertop, and if you've done everything correctly and have all your points, it draws a CAD file for you that you then export to your CAD program, says Elsie. "Then you can import that into the software that is supplied by ShopBot called Parts Wizard."

New possibilities

"There are so many things you can measure," says Elsie. Now that he's learned to use the ETemplate system, the CAD program and the ShopBot, Elsie is looking to expanding into cutting parts for other shops, doing millwork and 3-D signs.

He's already used the ETemplate to help handle the installation of stone countertops. Since the stone company Tops Plus installs for is also automated, Elsie takes the ETemplate pictures and enters the data into the CAD program and then e-mails it to the stone company. "They put it in their CNC machine and generate those files, cut the stone, ship it to me and I install it," says Elsie.

Tops Plus has also done a couple of millwork jobs using the ShopBot. Elsie convinced the owner of a local millwork shop to give him a shot at doing the millwork for a theater job. With the CNC router and the CAD program he felt the jobs were easy and definitely profitable.

Elsie sees the many capabilities of the machine and is determined to keep the machine busy.

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