With customers requesting increasingly complex designs in solid surface, fabricators are searching for a solution. Thermoforming may provide the best answer to these and other problems.
We have all seen how much and how quickly business changes today, and thus we are acutely aware how diligent we must be to meet those changes. But when looking at means to grow our existing business opportunities, products and capacities, the answer may be found right around the bend.
First, let’s look at what the solid surface industry has been up to for the last decade. Many went into the surfaces industry as a sideline from the cabinet, millhouse or laminate countertop industries. Whatever our past might be, we are likely to see even more change as we launch into a new century of surprise and innovation. Most of us could not have predicted the major advances in Internet, CNC, CAD or even telephone communication, to name a few, that this generation has experienced and how they have changed the way we do business. So what can we expect? More importantly, what can we do to influence the way the world views our products and industry?
It wasn’t long ago that very few customers had any idea what solid surface was, much less the vast benefits that it offered. The fact is, solid surface is possibly one of the miracle products of the 20th century when taking into account the impact it has already had. What plastic laminate did to form and function in the ‘50s and ‘60s, solid surface has already surpassed.
Times Are Changing
As we become more serious about being better craftsmen, business managers, salespersons and marketers, we have to learn to do more with less as well as keep up with the pack. Even a cursory look at our equipment shows that change is constant, and yet our ideas still sometimes lag behind. “That’s the way we’ve always done it” is a sentence of doom. So what can we do to move into a new frontier? Soft forms as well as gentle and graceful shapes are what seems to be the new trend. Square, blocky, structured, harsh and/or hard are all words that could be used to describe solid surface at the beginning. Then came the computer age, and now what we didn’t do because of complexity before we do easily with the simple click of a mouse. CNC has forever changed the world of today’s craftsmen.
One of the many advantages of solid surface is the character of its soul. It speaks to its beholder with a spectacle of color and dimension. It responds to heavy use as if challenged to stand up to the task. It rejects the most penetrating stain as if to say, “Begone!” and yet it is as warm and comforting as any material made by nature. Let’s now examine its heart: what makes this material is resin, filler and color pigments, all uniquely blended to create a material that has a glass transition temperature we can reach with ordinary equipment. This presents us with a gateway to a new solid surface dimension — thermoforming.
Thermoforming is a convenient means to create new shapes and forms we wouldn’t want to try laminating. Besides the time required for the layers, the quantities of adhesive alone in laminating send the project’s cost to the moon. Thermoforming allows us to use much less to achieve the same result. Remember all the radius corners that created vast amounts of cutting board and coaster materials? Remember the weight of that top with the 5-in. bull nose ticket counter that took four men and a forklift to load onto the truck? Not anymore!
I can hear your reply: “What is this adventure going to cost? I have kids to educate and I want to leave the plant this summer for a trip!” Believe me, I have the same concerns. But just as we have learned how to use spreadsheets to examine accounting realities, we can also examine potential. Now you can be the judge for your particular application. Examine the prospects and see if they hold benefits.
So you’ve made it this far — what next?
The Learning Curve
Well, let’s first examine the properties of thermoforming. I myself didn’t start out with all the benefits we have today; I had to wait for an opportunity. It was Saturday and my wife and daughters were out for a day in town. My wife’s nephew was working for us at the time, and we got the idea to explore some wild and reckless adventure on the battlefield of the kitchen. On the menu was solid surface and the recipe was straight from the material training bulletin: Heat until soft and spread onto the form of choice. Without much preparation we soon learned that it was a challenge to hold onto and soon found several pieces on our vinyl flooring. Did I mention that potholders are difficult to use in holding on to that newfound rubbery substance? We learned that cool forms chilled the materials quickly, so back into the oven. It seemed that we could work faster if we turned up the heat so we just turned it up (you guessed it) all the way to high. We just worked faster from then on to accommodate our naiveté. I had to assume all responsibility from that point because I was the adult in the situation. The ins and outs of this episode were intriguing, and I learned a lot about what not to do.