(written in December, 1994)
by Jim Heaphy
Solid surface fabricators who are serious about reducing their costs and increasing profitability have only a few options to consider. Raw material costs are relatively high, and savings available either by improving material yields or by negotiating better prices from suppliers are likely to be limited at best. Installation labor costs must be monitored carefully, but it is doubtful whether most companies can reduce these costs significantly without compromising quality. Competitive companies of every sort must constantly evaluate their overhead costs with the goal of operating in a leaner and more efficient manner. However, it is my belief that the average solid surface fabricator can make the greatest gains in profitability by emphasizing productivity improvements on the fabrication shop floor. This is why so many fabricators are considering, and some have purchased, computer controlled (CNC) router systems.
MESSY, COSTLY AND TIME CONSUMING
CNC routers can cut and shape complex parts with great accuracy, and that is certainly a benefit. However, CNC routers do not help with some of the most time-consuming operations performed in solid surface fabrication shops, including gluing up and clamping built-up decorative edge details, and removing excess seam adhesive squeeze-out in preparation for routing of final edge profiles. However, there is a technology that has been on the market for decades that offers great promise in these areas. To the best of my knowledge, this technology, automated V-grooving, has not been utilized by solid surface fabricators until very recently.
Fabricators commonly create thick countertop edges by stacking one or more rectangular strips of solid surface material below the main countertop deck. (See Figure 1.) Gluing up these edges is a messy, imprecise operation requiring many spring clamps and excess adhesive dripping all over what will become finished countertop surfaces. Once the adhesive has cured, the excess that has dripped out of the front of the seams must be machined away cleanly. The employee assembling and cleaning up the edges must be well-trained and skilled. The entire operation is labor intensive and therefore costly.
AN ELEGANT ALTERNATIVE
V-grooving machinery presents an elegant alternative to these conventional methods. A sheet of solid surface material is fed into the machine face down. An automatic tape dispenser applies a continuous strip of transparent plastic tape to the face of the sheet along the line where the edge is to be fabricated. A rotating cutter then machines a precise V-groove into the back of the sheet. The apex of the V-groove penetrates precisely through the sheet of solid surface material, but does not cut through the plastic tape. (See Figure 2.)
The plastic tape then functions as a hinge, and the edge strip can then be folded precisely into position once seam adhesive is applied to the V-grooved area. Relatively unskilled employees can glue up these edges using fewer clamps. The tape prevents any excess adhesive from dripping onto finished countertop surfaces. Once the adhesive has cured, the tape can be stripped off in seconds, and the edge is now ready for final profile routing with no adhesive cleanup required. Considerable labor time is saved, and the final product quality is consistently excellent. (See Figure 3.)
Two parallel edges of peninsulas or table tops can be machined in a single pass. Edges that meet at 90§ angles can be machined by combining cross grooving with lineal grooving operations. Edge aprons can be of any width, and the machinery also is capable of creating coved backsplash details.
The process does have certain limitations. It can only create straight edges on rectangular countertop components. It can't be used to fabricate round tabletops or curved countertops. However, a fabricator who has purchased a V-grooving machine reports that the process can be used for 80% of his production, and he uses conventional custom fabrication techniques for the remainder of his work. This fabricator, Paul Temple of ALPS Craftsmen & Technology in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, is so enthusiastic about V-grooving that he is encouraging other solid surface fabricators to get involved with this technology.
Conventional procedures for assembling "L" and "U" shaped countertops must be modified somewhat in order to create structurally sound rounded inside corners. Precoved insert pieces are used to create the radiused inside corner, rather than using the more common offset seam method. Since two wide edge aprons are seamed together at each inside corner, a large glue surface area adds strength to these corner seams. The largest manufacturer of solid surface materials, Du Pont CORIAN, has reviewed the technology, and describes it as "an acceptable alternative to present methods", as long as all applicable technical requirements are followed.
When fabricating heavily veined marble patterns of solid surface materials, the V-grooving technique results in a much more attractive finished product. The pattern flows from the horizontal surface to the vertical edge in a natural, attractive fashion, avoiding the unsightly pattern shift that characterizes conventional fabrication methods.
THE TECHNOLOGY HAS BEEN AROUND FOR DECADES
Automatic V-grooving equipment has been used in production woodworking environments since the 1960's, and is common in plants that produce goods such as store fixtures, rectangular furniture components and enclosures for speakers and other audio equipment out of prelaminated particle board panels. The machinery is durable, reliable and easy to operate.
The technology may not be appropriate for smaller, custom-oriented fabricators. However, those larger fabricators who are committed to productivity improvements, and who want to pursue market segments that involve high-volume, straight run work, may want to investigate V-grooving carefully. The oldest and largest manufacturer of V-grooving equipment is Auto "V" Grooving Inc., 863 Fenmar Drive, Weston, Ontario, Canada M9L 1C8. Call (800) 387-5819 for a video and information packet for solid surface fabricators.
WHAT'S ON YOUR MIND?
Do you have a fabrication problem that has been bugging you? Perhaps you've discovered a clever fabrication technique that you would like to share with your peers. Maybe you just want to blow off some steam. In the five years that I've been writing this column, my goal has always been to provide information of use to a broad range of countertop fabricators and installers. I welcome your input. Send your questions, comments or criticisms to Jim Heaphy, email@example.com. I will do my best to respond to your letters in future columns.