Developing a suitable manufacturing system took a lot of work and plenty of time in research and development and then there was a lot of detail that had to go into the actual process. "There's a learning curve to pouring sheets," said Travis. "Anyone can set up shop to pour sheets in their garage, but if you really want to focus on producing a high-quality product, it's not that simple. You have a lot of issues to deal with and you have to control your people to make sure they're doing things the exact same way every time. There are a lot of variables that could jump up and bite you if you aren't careful."
He also noted that prices are moving downward for solid surface, so it may not be very profitable if a company isn't pouring a reasonably high volume of product. However, pouring your own product has plenty of upsides to it also.
In addition to higher daily capacities, the company has seen a more consistent flatness to its product, meaning less sanding is required, and Travis said there are no surprises in product quality when it is controlled in-house.
We decided to build this equipment to make 1⁄4-in. more efficiently than the open-mold system," said Steve. "However, it became obvious that once we got into this machine and started working on it, that it would not only do 1⁄4-in. very efficiently, but it will also do 1⁄2-in., or anything in between also very efficiently."
So, the company started to pour 1⁄2-in. sheets to sell to the more traditional fabricator under the brand Vision solid surface (see Figure 5). Even though expenses in the United States are higher than those in other countries, the company has been able to stay competitive in this arena through innovation and technology advancements.
"Our 1⁄2-in. product is not quite as inexpensive as some of the product being imported from Asia, but we are fairly competitive," said Steve. "Most of that product is in 30-in.-sheets, so if you have to make a kitchen you'll have to buy two sheets and have some left over. If you want a 36-in. or bigger island, you'll have to seam two sheets together, where as with our product, you can buy sheets in exactly the size needed, from 18 to 49 in. wide. The same is true with lengths. The standard length is 12 ft., but we can offer sheets from 6 to 16 ft. long if the fabricator can handle it."
So now an estimated 15 percent of the material being produced is 1⁄2-in., which is then sold to the company's growing network of fabricators.
"And the fact that it's produced in America means you don't have to inventory container loads of this material to get a reasonable price," added Steve. "You don't have to rely on huge container shipments coming from Asia getting there on time. You've got a Wisconsin firm that can give you material within two weeks. Plus it puts us in the position to demonstrate that U.S. manufacturing is still alive."
Not Only A Fabricator
With its laminate product, Sta-Care continues to customize about 85 percent of it, selling the rest as blanks to smaller laminate fabricators. And with its solid surface veneer, about 60 percent is customized and 40 percent blanks. However, with its 1⁄2-in. solid surface, Sta-Care doesn't do any of the fabricating.