Don't look now, but there is a new class of manufacturer driving its stake into the collective solid surface turf. Usually lacking strong national distribution or the backing of a large multi-national company, these second-tier producers nonetheless cover the country with an attractive alternative product offering to the mainstream brands.
A New Vision
In the mid-1980s John Nichols could see the emerging potential of solid surface. Part entrepreneur, part scientist and part engineer, Nichols set out to build a solid surface manufacturing plant to service the South Florida market. By 1988 he had a product formulation, and in 1990 the first solid surface countertops were fabricated and installed under the name of Florenata.
In 1995 the company got out of the fabrication business and concentrated its efforts into supplying sheets and bowls to area fabricators. As its reputation for quality and service grew, so did its customer base, and by the turn of the century Florenata was being shipped regularly throughout the entire United States .
With its increased distribution area came the need to cut down on the number of days material was in transit. A major obstacle to that goal was Florenata's Boynton Beach location which, because of its southern Florida proximity, added an extra day to any shipment leaving the state. So, in 2002 the company opened a 50,000 sq. ft. manufacturing plant in the northern Florida town of Cottondale , just 20 minutes from Dothan , Ala. , which is a major hub for several trucking companies. The company could now promise delivery of in-stock product anywhere in the U.S. in two to three days.
The Manufacturing Process
Now that he had plenty of floor space to work with, Nichols set to work designing a manufacturing system uniquely suited to the Florenata product line. A primary requirement for the new plant was the ability to mass produce solid surface sheets and bowls using a minimum of labor. In addition, the system had to be flexible enough to allow for introduction of custom colors into the manufacturing flow on short notice.
What the folks at Florenata came up with was a modified continuous batch process that has the capacity of turning out up to 250 sheets of solid surface per day using just eight people. Custom colors are not a problem, and are regularly produced during a typical eight-hour shift. That is because the production line utilizes two batch mixers holding enough slurry for 20 sheets each. As soon as one mixer delivers its load to the production line, it is available for reloading with any other color in the Florenata palette.
Storage of the two main ingredients of solid surface - ATH and resin - is kept away from the manufacturing area. ATH is kept in a silo located outside the building and blown through a tube to the mixing area when needed. The resin is also stored offsite in two tanks housed in a special fire-proof room. Just before use it is pumped into large vats where specialized chemicals are added to promote the resin, then the mixture is sent to one of the two mixers. Here resin, ATH, particulate and pigments are combined to create the solid surface slurry. This is also where vacuum is applied to remove air.
The mixture is pumped through a special stainless steel tube to the casting line, where fiberglass molds rotate on roller tables in a closed loop under the mixer nozzle. Since it takes about two minutes to fill a standard 30 in. x 145 in. mold, the rate of travel for the molds is fixed accordingly.
When a filled mold reaches the end of the first leg of the loop it is shifted to the opposite leg by means of an automatic transfer station. About halfway up the distance of this second leg, the solid surface material has cured and is ready for demolding and stacking onto a palette for transportation into the sanding area via forklift.