One doesn't often hear a lot about the doings of solid surface fabricators located in the upper Midwest section of the U. S. Maybe it is because the typical personality of these salt-of-the-earth types tends more toward the strong and the quiet than the loud and flamboyant. Yet here you will find some of the most creative, hardest working and forward thinking individuals our industry has to offer.
It may not have been the most auspicious beginning for someone with a two-year degree in architectural drafting, but that was OK with Bruce Akins. "It was a way to get into the industry," he explains. "I started out with a cabinet manufacturer doing kitchen layouts for apartments. It was pretty mundane work."
From there Akins signed on with a laminate countertop company as a fabricator, eventually working his way into the front office. "After a while we set up a separate division to do Corian fabrication," he says, "and I became a partner in that division, still working on the laminate side of the business. Four years later I bought out the Corian side."
That was in 1988. Today, Akins' company, Innovative Surfaces, located in Hastings, Minn., is one of the largest of its kind in the country. Fifty-plus employees fabricate solid surface tops for the commercial and residential markets in a 20,000 sq.-ft. company-owned building. Also included in the product mix is pre-fabricated quartz surfacing and granite, which Innovative Surfaces sells and installs to the residential market.
"We want the mix of solid surface and quartz," Akins says. "We think they both have some really good attributes. You have a lot of design flexibility with solid surface, and there are some real aesthetics with quartz. It is not uncommon to install quartz in the kitchen and solid surface in the bathrooms, for example, or put solid surface on the perimeter kitchen counters -- with coved splash and an integral sink -- and quartz on the island."
As a laminate fabricator in the early days of his career, Akins was not only familiar with the benefits of a coved backsplash, he understood the mechanics for proper templating and installation. Thus, when solid surface technology evolved to include coved fabrication, his company adopted it immediately. Today, the coved backsplash is one of Innovative Surfaces' signature products.
"We had an idea how to fit tops with coved splashes right off the bat because of our laminate background," he explains. "The resistance we were hearing from fabricators to the coved splash idea was they could build them, but they didn't know how to install them. We just used the same philosophy we used with laminate tops. I think it gave us a technological and marketing edge early on."
Ditching The Dust
Akins has always recognized the benefits of a dust free environment in a solid surface shop, but resisted the traditional idea of attaching vacuum hoses to hand tools because they are so cumbersome. His solution was to install a series of spray booth modules, which remove dust particles by circulating air through the filters and then re-introducing clean air into the shop.
"We have 15 different Torit modules put together to make five booths," he says. "Each module moves 4,000 cu.-ft. per minute. Because the air goes right back into the shop we don't lose building heat, which in Minnesota is a big advantage. Plus we don't have to hassle with vacuum hoses. We think it is a convenient and cost-effective solution to the dust problem."