Kitchen appliance technology isn’t all that’s changing these days. Learn how the tools to make high-quality countertops are also getting a digital makeover.
Accompanies “Smart Technology: Kitchens That Know More than We Do”
Rick George has been doing stonework for 17 years, the past six as president of Lonnie’s StoneCrafters, 2529 Laude Dr., Rockford. He remembers when, to do a job, he would use straight edges and squares and, right there in customers’ kitchens, glue plywood strips together in the shape of the counter to create a template.
“Measuring and cutting have changed a lot since then,” he says with a laugh. Five years ago Lonnie’s bought a laser, the LT 55 XL, to do its templating, which allows more precise measurements, within one-hundredths of an inch, and faster creation of templates.
“We added an upgrade this past July that makes our entire operation digital,” George explains. “We’re one of only two shops in Rockford that can say that, and maybe five out of more than 350 in the Chicago area.”
The new software program sends the measurements to an interfaced computer and then to a computer numerical control (CNC) saw and router. “We set the laser on a tripod, shoot specific points along the cabinets, then raise it and shoot points along the wall, and it creates a digital template,” says George. “It has CAD [computer assisted design] functionality built in, so we can immediately help the homeowner with the designs on site.”
One of the biggest challenges installing granite is matching the grain.
“Because granite occurs naturally, there’s a lot of color variation and movement in the stone,” says George. “It’s created under great heat and pressure, and the distinctive veining and shading, that give it its natural beauty, also make it difficult to match. That’s why the most exciting aspect of the upgrade involves the use of digital photography.”
After measurements have been taken, customers visit Lonnie’s granite gallery to choose the slabs that will become their new countertops. “Once they’ve chosen them, we set them up against a plain white background and photograph them,” George continues. “Then, we’re able to bring those photos up on the computer, and lay the countertop templates on top of them. This way, we’re able to shift the templates around, and the computer will place them in a configuration that allows for the best graining match.”
The software program even allows for the flat image to be viewed in 3-D, to show how the backsplashes will look. “We can see how the kitchen will look before we make our first cut,” says George.
Once the best pattern is determined and programmed, it’s time to cut the granite. To do this, the computer sends the dimensions to the CNC saw and router. The machine and computer interface now, sending not only dimensions but also specific blades and router bits needed during each stage of production. “The machine is amazing,” says George. “It even laser-scans each tool and will adjusts the calibrations to offset any wear.”
The upgrade hasn’t taken any jobs away at Lonnie’s Stonecrafters. “We took people we already had and trained them on different technologies,” George explains. “It takes a lot of care and attention to detail to correctly place the slabs on the machine for cutting. Then, we still sand, polish, buff and treat by hand. We don’t beat the competition because of our machines. We blow them away, because of our people.”
Many companies may not want to embrace technology, but Lonnie’s is a testimony to its benefits.
“We’ve lowered our costs because of the digital tech,” says George. “Measurement and design take less time. Fabrication costs have gone down. We have fewer touch-ups because of the accuracy of the laser. The kitchen isn’t disrupted for days – most are one-day removal and installation. Most important, this amazing technology allows our customers to be a part of the process. It gives them peace of mind that the job is going to look good, and the end result makes them happy. It’s not just a job. These guys, both here in the shop and out installing, are true craftsmen. I’ve actually had customers hug me, or come in to thank everyone in person, at the end of a job. It’s gratifying to be able to take this much pride in what you do.”