Many shops automate to reduce employees, but sometimes that same technology creates a need for more.

Concrete Interior Designs Inc. invested in a ShopBot CNC router and ETemplate measuring software to replace two production employees and soon discovered that the technology dramatically increased their capacity beyond what the existing skilled staff could produce.

Since automating six months ago, the Scottsdale, Ariz., custom concrete countertop manufacturer has tripled the amount of kitchens it can do in a month. "On average we now do about 15 to 20 jobs per month," says co-owner Jody Crawford.

Cutting production time is imperative to keeping wait times at a competitive four to six weeks. "Most people don't understand how long concrete takes," says Crawford. "It's a process and requires curing time unlike materials, such as granite."

After meeting with clients, co-owner Brian Szczech enters the measurements, and the software does most of the drawings. He then writes programs for the CNC router.

"A complex island with curved seams can take a mold maker three to five days to cut out by hand," says Szczech. "The CNC router can do it accurately in six minutes."

But, he's found the CNC router is only as accurate as the information programmed into it. "If I put something in here wrong it's still wrong, but the process is faster and more efficient than the old way," he says. "In the past we had one person make the drawings by hand and the six guys working from the drawings increased the chance for errors six times."

Cross-training employees

Even though the CNC router is incredibly accurate and efficient, Szczech doesn't undervalue the care and detail, the human element that makes the product what it is in the end.

"These countertops are handcrafted one-of-a-kind pieces," says Szczech. "All new employees go through an extensive six-month training process, which starts with me or co-owner Dave Crawford. Concrete isn't forgiving. If you make a mistake, you have to start over and the client has to wait another week."

After the initial training period, new employees team up with more experienced workers. "All of our employees are cross trained to reduce production bottlenecks," says Szczech. "If someone has a question about a slurry color, dimension or if the mix is too wet or dry he can double-check with the guy next to him."

However, finding motivated employees isn't easy. "Our current shop personnel have been with us for at least a year and we just hired two more people," says Crawford. "Because there's a high demand for what we do, we could use twice as many employees as we have now."

Handcrafted countertops

CID uses just about every piece of woodworking equipment you would find in a traditional cabinetmaking shop and a few you won't, such as cement mixers and three-head polishers.

Once a client signs off on a design, production begins building custom melamine molds. The shop uses Jet bandsaws, table saws, planers, jointers and sanders to build the complex molds. Concrete is poured into the molds and is vibrated to release trapped air, which causes holes and can weaken the concrete.

The concrete cures in the molds for a few days and is then released, flipped and grinded. "We let it set for a week and polish it with a three-head polisher, which opens up any little holes," says Szczech. "We then do a slurry backfill, until the little holes are gone."

Finished countertops sit for a few more days before the sealer is applied. "We usually install a couple days after the sealer cures," says Crawford.

Concrete countertops are shipped upright like glass because if they're transported flat, hair line fractures can occur because of weight. It usually takes about six hours to install a kitchen and two or three days for an entire house, which can include bathrooms, kitchen, fireplace surrounds and outdoor barbecues.

Generating business

The shop's marketing focuses around building relationships with builders, architects and designers. "We've bought mailing lists from professional associations for direct mailings and brochures," says Crawford. CID advertises in Phoenix Home and Garden magazine, maintains a showroom in a kitchen and bath design center and is registered on the Web site Concrete Network (www.concretenetwork.com).

"If we pull back on advertising we experience an immediate decline in sales," says Crawford. "We also have to constantly update our showrooms to show customers what you can do with concrete."

Approximately 80 percent of the shop's business is residential and the other 20 percent is commercial. "For commercial applications we mostly work on bathrooms and bar tops," says Crawford. "The concrete mix is the same for outside or inside commercial and residential projects. The only difference is the type of water-based topcoat sealer we apply."

Because concrete is a more expensive countertop material than granite, the company provides exceptional customer service.

"If a customer uses his countertop as a cutting board, which we don't recommend, and scratches it we'll come out and repair it at no charge," says Szczech. "We sometimes do a couple repairs a month."

Tackling the next hurdle

As concrete's popularity continues to grow, installs are creating new production bottlenecks. Because all shop personnel are cross-trained, they all help on larger installations. A small install such as a kitchen requires four people for a day. On a larger install, eight men may be needed for multiple days.

"I go on 95 percent of the installs because we're putting a very expensive product in very expensive homes on very expensive cabinetry," says Szczech. "If we have back-to-back installations, we fall behind at the shop."

To help solve the bottleneck, he is looking into hiring someone who could manage installations and provide the same level of customer service the shop is known for, says Szczech. "We're hoping this will be the solution to our employee crunch."

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