CNC: Tooling Up

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In just about anything, there’s good to be had in even the worst of times. Still, if your business is barely hanging on, your first thought isn’t to go out and buy a new – and expensive – piece of equipment.

It’s worth a moment, however, to at least pause and think about a CNC production center. There are good values in the marketplace right now, and if you’d like to expand your product offerings or just streamline what you’re doing, the time may be right.

As with anything else in business, the advantage of a CNC varies with each user. In talking to several owners, for example, one found the production center allowed a business to cut some employees in a tight economy; another added workers when the machines helped create new business opportunities..

The secrets to success in adding this investment: Know where you want your business to go – and buy accordingly. And, pay close attention to the software your machine requires, because it’s definitely going to come with a learning curve.

GOING WITH THE FLOW

MEMPHIS, Tenn.Christie Cut Stone is definitely an old-line stone-fabrication shop. Bond Christie is the third generation of his family to head the operation; his son, Andrew, is the fourth to work in it.

152_Bond cross3After decades of doing hand-carving and –finishing, in 2006 the company invested in a Park Industries Inc. Infinity®. And, says Bond Christie, the family couldn’t be more pleased with the results.

At the time of the purchase, Christie adds that he was looking to deal with a backlog of work, and liked the idea the machine could run unattended overnight. However, the big payoff came with an unexpected turn of events – namely, when the economy faltered and the company went from too much work to not enough.

“Because of a lack of work, it was necessary to eliminate some of the people in the plant,” he says. “However, as the economy picks up – which we’re certain it will – I don’t think we’ll need to call everybody back. The machine has eliminated three or four jobs, at least.”

Bond Christie admits it was a big step bringing automation into the plant of a company that believes if something has been made in stone – be it façade or fireplace surround – Christie Cut Stone can replicate it.

“For me, the biggest thing is that it’s eliminated the supervision necessary for the work to get done,” he says. “The CNC takes it from raw material to finished product. You load it and it comes off virtually finished. Previously, it would have to go from the saw to a planing machine to a joining machine to the finishing line, and all that had to be supervised to keep it moving.”

It’s not that the transition was a snap. Andrew Christie, who works as a draftsman for the company, was selected to take two weeks of training at Park’s St. Cloud, Minn., headquarters, and now programs the CNC. He says it was an intense learning experience.

“I learned how to draw in Mastercam® CAD-CAM software and how to send information to the machine,” he says. “I also learned how to do the maintenance. Because we’re so far away, we need to be able to take care of everything here.”

Although he says that Park has been good with phone support, he adds, “The software is the stuff we really don’t know; we’re not IT guys. However, Park told us when we got into it that the more we’d draw, the more we’d become accustomed to it and sure enough, we have.”

Ultimately, Andrew Christie says he’s pretty satisfied with the company’s move toward automation, and so is his father.

Bond Christie says the company has several jobs he describes as being “on the cusp of turning into orders.” When that happens, he expects Christie Cut Stone will be ordering a second CNC production center – one of the smaller Vector® machines – from Park rather than calling back some of the finishing crew laid off earlier.

His key advice for buying a CNC production center: Deal with a company that’s going to provide good training.

A NEW EDGE

ALPHARETTA, Ga. – Don Koop knows all about changing business models in mid-stream, as his family-owned company made the move from countertop production to architectural limestone almost a decade ago.

And, automation helped the owners of Cutting Edge Stone Inc., get where they wanted to go.152_nu-koop-IMG_1415

Koop, the head of shop operations, explains that the business started doing countertop work in the early 1990s. However, he estimates that, by the end of the 20th century, it was one of at least 100 shops in the greater Atlanta area specializing in countertop fabrication and installation.

“It got to the point where the profit margins were so low that we decided to get out of that part of the industry,” Koop explains. “We were already doing some architectural limestone, and we decided to change the makeup of the business.”

Up to that point, Koop says, the company hadn’t been particularly automated. To make the switch, they realized Cutting Edge would have to be on the cutting edge of automation.

Since 2000, the company added both Omag S.p.A. and Prussiani Engineering S.r.l. five-axis work centers, three CNC-controlled three-axis saws for milling and sawing, and a waterjet. Both five-axis work centers have interpolated lathes, and the company also has a separate Omag lathe.

“Today, we’re focused on the cut-stone market,” says Koop. “We really aren’t set up to do countertops.”

He adds that rather than working with slabs, much of the fabrication is done from blocks, with columns, balustrades and other architectural features as Cutting Edge’s stock-in-trade. Although limestone is the largest part of its work, the company can also fabricate granite and marble pieces.

“We do column shafts up to 148” long,” Koop explains. “Some of the pieces we do will weigh up to 10,000 lbs, for just one piece. We have the capability of turning column shafts up to 28” in diameter.”

However, getting there wasn’t easy. As head of shop operations, Koop is the one who learned the new equipment, and he and one employee still do most of the programming. For him, it meant a tremendous increase in his skill level and comfort with the computer side of the computer-numeric-controlled operation.

“I had to learn CAD-CAM software and how to draw in 3-D,” he says. “Now, we’ve gotten to the point where we draw just about everything three-dimensionally so the clients can see exactly what they’re getting. And, we draw it in such a way we can pull the pieces off and put them directly on the CAD-CAM software and then machine them.

“There’s a tremendous amount of learning that has to be done consistently,” Koop adds.

His biggest complaint about the process: having to learn different CAD-CAM softwares.

“One of the more difficult and frustrating parts of it is programming the more-complex jobs,” he says.

Not surprisingly, his advice to people considering adding a CNC production center to their equipment inventory is to stay with one make of machinery so they only have to learn one software package.

“And, make sure the machinery has been well-tested before buying,” he concludes.

OUT OF THE BOX

MOUNT AIRY, N.C. – Doug Porter has a long history of working with CNC machinery, so when he went into the stone fabrication business in 2003, it was only natural that he would incorporate a production center into Rock Solid Dimensional Stone.

Porter started working for his family’s business manufacturing precision-measuring machines utilizing granite back in the early 1960s, and by the end of that decade was using rudimentary CNC equipment.

152_Porter-samon1After the company was sold, he worked for the new owners for a time, and then went to work for a friend in the electrical-contracting field. When he decided to leave that job in 2000, he remembered growing up around the stone side of the business, and utilized that and his contacts with architects and builders to help them with their cut-stone needs.

“I was subcontracting the fabrication out to various people in Georgia and Indiana, but a friend kept twisting my arm to build my own shop here in North Carolina,” Porter explains. “I thought there was no sense in starting my own shop if it was going to be like everyone else’s, so I started applying my background to that idea. Then, I found Park Industries.”

When Porter built a new plant in 2003, it was designed specifically for computer-numeric equipment.  When the facility opened the next year, it included a Park Infinity, a three-axis Destiny® and a Jaguar saw with profile capabilities. The package also included a post processor so the company could run three-axis work via Mastercam software.

Since then, he’s also added a waterjet and – earlier this year – an Omag three-axis machine.

“We developed a post-processor so we can use Mastercam with it also,” Porter says. “We can run each machine’s software, but we also use Mastercam for the Infinity, the Destiny and the Jaguar. The entire shop is networked, and all my machines are networked.”

These days, the Omag is devoted totally to dimensional stone; with his background in granite and machine tools, Porter has had custom tooling built for the machine to help with its 3D milling

The shop also runs two shifts a day, and Porter says his 10-person staff includes two key employees with associate degrees in machine-tool technology and computer science.

“They’re very good mechanics,” he says of the pair. “They’re very much practical-knowledge guys. One can write code, so if the software won’t allow us to do certain things, we go in and write or edit the G-code.”

Porter stresses his 3D work goes out all along the East Coast, and it’s important for him to be able to fabricate from blocks up to 12’ long and more than 60” wide.

“I didn’t build my shop around countertops; there are plenty of other people doing that,” he says.

Porter doesn’t believe you can possibly go too big with the work centers. He says the Omag machine he bought this year was purchased in a hurry just to keep up with the volume of work the shop has – but, “The next one will be a larger machine; for right now we’re just getting by.”

His advice to those considering buying a new work center is to stretch their thinking.

“You can buy all the machines that are out there, but if you don’t have the skills to program it and run it – and the insight to imagine what all you can do with the equipment – it’s not going to pay off,” he says. “Particularly if you don’t have any background in CNC work, you’d better know somebody who can program it for you and can understand what’s going on.”

HEAVYWEIGHT PRODUCTION

TORONTO – Although many people find the addition of a CNC work station allows them to go from the two-dimensional world of countertops into the three-dimensional world of architectural stone, the reverse is true for Gem Campbell Terrazzo & Tile Inc.

Rick Giacomini, Gem Campbell vice president, explains the firm initially automated to do a better job on its large granite and limestone installations. Then, the company discovered the local condominium market.152_Gem-CNC-Pictures-Nov-(4)

Gem Campbell began life as a commercial hard-flooring contractor in the late 1950s. From cutting large square panels for walls and floors, the company expanded into fabricating larger stone pieces.

“We had a transition in ownership in the late ‘90s, and there was a vision, if you will, to modernize our manufacturing plant,” Giacomini explains. “Then, in 2001, we had the opportunity to do a really large project in Washington – 101 Constitution Square. The job called for more than 100,000 ft² of exterior limestone, most of it in curved panels with some strange shapes. At that point, we needed a five-axis CNC to do the work.”

After some serious shopping, the company settled on an Intermac Top Master machine that allowed the company to take its fabrication from being strictly an in-house cost center to being a revenue-producer as it picked up large fabrication work from an Ontario quarry.

It remained Gem Campbell’s workhorse until 2008, when the firm noticed a distinct change in its market.

“A lot of the commercial work was drying up,” Giacomini says. “But, Toronto has seen a real boom in condominium construction for the last 10-12 years, and we were not in the condo market at all. We realized it was time we looked for another revenue source.”

It was just last year that the company added a Master 43 Twin, also from Intermac – Biesse S.p.a.

“Now, our core business is still commercial construction, but we do a very large amount of condominium work, as well – countertop work,” says Giacomini. “The 43 Twin is ideal for that because it has dual heads which allow for concurrent milling and polishing from both heads, significantly reducing the time for these tasks and which ultimately results in increased throughput.

“This technology, combined with new high-speed diamond technology has made a tremendous difference in our capacity output.”

Today, the company is using its work centers (it added a Master 23 earlier this year to keep up with demand, and its Ottawa shop runs a Master 43) for everything from massive architectural features to custom bowl sinks in specialized granites, marbles and limestones. The Top Master even serves as a backup machine in countertop production.

Nor has integrating the technology into Gem Campbell’s operation proven to be a problem. Giacomini says that – fortunately – the plant has plenty of space for the machines. Originally however, there were concerns among the production employees that they’d lose jobs to automation.

“In fact, the opposite has happened,” he says. “Because of the technology, we were able to bring a lot more work into our plant. By bringing in more outside fabrication work – not our normal supply and installation production -- we had more work for the fabrication workforce and increased our throughput in the plant.”

Although all the machines are from the same company, Giacomini says there’s been a distinct improvement in the software to run them.

“The technology is evolving exponentially,” he says. “The Top Master had very rudimentary software, it wasn’t user-friendly and it did require a fairly long learning curve. The new machines have software that’s Windows®-based and are very user-friendly. We’re really happy with the new software.”

While Giacomini says an important feature of his company’s relationship with Biesse is its North American-based service and support, he believes the key for anyone thinking of buying a CNC production center is to know their business – well.

“A lot of people will buy a machine because it’s the fastest and the biggest,” he concludes. “You need to analyze your business requirements, both current and future. Sometimes a small, economical machine will do exactly what you need.”

DO-IT-YOURSELF

EVANSVILLE, Ind. – Graham Wink picked probably the ideal time to buy a CNC production center for Cutting Edge Granite. Although he’d been looking at the machines to help with his countertop work, a cut-stone job pushed him over the brink.

“We had a project that required us to carve three sinks into a block of marble,” he says. “We wanted to do that work ourselves; while I saw it as a way to increase our residential countertop production, I assumed I’d buy a CNC if I got that particular job.”

152_Cutting-EdgeThat was almost five years ago, and since then, the company has found plenty of uses for its Denver s.a. three-axis machine.

“We still run mostly kitchens on it, but we go after all the unusual kinds of commercial work we can get,” says Wink. “We can carve sinks and shower pans out of a single block of stone. We also do a lot of balustrades.”

Cutting Edge Granite also has a sister company that does tile and terrazzo, and Wink says it’s helped with some precast projects.

“We’ll pour a block or a sheet of terrazzo and face mill it with the CNC,” he explains. “It makes a great flat terrazzo base.”

And, he says the shop hasn’t even tapped all its potential for doing things like bas relief carvings and converting black-and-white photos into three-dimensional carved images.

It’s possible Wink may have even gotten jaded about the machine’s potential after that first big job – which measured 9’ X 2’ X 6”, and had to be back-milled to fit the faucets. He’s grateful he had some 16 months between getting the contract and having to turn out the job, which gave him plenty of time to buy the machine and go through a training program at Denver’s U.S. distributor, VIC International Corp.

Today, other employees handle the routine programming of the machine for jobs such as countertops, but Wink says he’s still the go-to person when it comes to programming more-complicated jobs.

He attributes that to the fact that the Italian software the machine uses isn’t easy or quick to learn.

“There are some great software packages out there, but they’re expensive,” Wink says. “It’s sometimes hard to get our machine to talk to our program. I had to learn G-Code to figure out how to fix it, and we have to open up the program files and change things around.”

In fact, his biggest complaint is the machine’s software, followed by the fact that the table isn’t always quite as long as he would like.

Besides cautioning would-be buyers that they’re really looking at a five- to seven-year commitment when buying a work center, he suggests they talk to someone who’s currently using a particular model before making a decision.

“Probably everyone who’s been successful with their machine will like it, but I probably would have gotten a different machine if I knew everything I know now,” Wink concludes. “We find ways to work around problems – especially the size of the table – but it can be discouraging.”

This article appeared in the December 2009 print edition of Stone Business. ©2009 Western Business Media Inc.