MINNEAPOLIS – It’s not just consumers who are noticing that six- or eight-week delay in getting countertops fabricated.
When officials at Milwaukee-based Hallmark Building Supplies Inc. determined there weren’t enough manufacturers to fabricate the DuPont Zodiaq® they distribute, they saw an opportunity to get into the business.
Rather than just jumping in with both feet, the supplier opted to take a studied approach to the challenge of getting a fabrication shop up and rolling. Hallmark’s vice president of operations thoroughly studied the industry and machining options, and then set up a first-rate shop.
The result is Pollux Manufacturing Inc. Although the market changed somewhat in the 24 months it took to get up and running, the Hallmark division reported its first profitable month in August, turning out an average of 8-10 kitchens per day … despite utilizing only about 60 percent of its production capacity.
The operation also is also adapting to other market needs. While the current product mix leans heavily to DuPont’s quartz surface, Pollux’s manager sees other stone products becoming a large part of output in the future.
Roland Pfender, the Hallmark operations vice president who now serves as Pollux’s chief operation officer (COO), says the parent company became concerned more than two years ago that there wasn’t enough fabrication capacity for finished Zodiaq countertops in its market area.
“Joe Balthazor, Hallmark’s president and CEO (chief executive officer) had a vision for creating a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility to service our installer network with lead times of less than 10 days, high-quality finished goods, competitive prices, and excellent customer service,” says Pfender.
At the time, he adds, many DuPont Corian® (which Hallmark also distributes) fabricators weren’t interested in investing in the machinery to get into the Zodiaq market. Even though that has subsequently changed, Pfender adds, “We still saw an opportunity in this market.”
Hallmark also had the commitment to take the time and do the research necessary to build Pollux into an efficient, cost-effective operation.
“The first thing we did was create a process map which we call our company linkage,” says Pfender. “We decided to look at what processes we would need to develop and what type of people we needed to make this happen.”
From there, Pfender began working with machinery suppliers and consultants to gain as much knowledge as possible about the stone-fabrication industry.
“I probably visited about 40 stone shops in Texas and Minnesota, and then in Germany and Holland,” he says. “From that we developed our vision and our plan of how we were going to move forward.”
Pfender says he was particularly impressed with one facility in Holland that included automated storage and retrieval. In his position as vice president of operations, Pfender also oversaw Hallmark’s information technology department and he says he realized that Pollux’s development was as much an IT project as it was a stone-working one.
“We found this is really high technology,” he says. “All our machines are PC-based and fully integrated. We get drawings, we put them in the computer, we create machine code and then we track each project through the plant using bar codes and scanners that allows us to track time on each job for profitability analysis, as well as job status.”
Once the decision was made to go forward with Pollux, Hallmark partnered with Langenaltheim, Germany-based Löffler Maschinenbau GmbH through its (then) U.S. representative, Pyramid Supply Inc. of Barre, Vt. Pyramid’s Jason Farnsworth helped design Pollux’s plant, as well as consulting on machine layout and capacity.
Pollux was incorporated in February 2003, and began hiring associates and installing equipment that June in its 45,000 ft² building located next to Hallmark’s Minneapolis-based distribution facility. Trial runs began this past December and January; in February 2004, Pollux began actual production.
Pfender readily admits the amount of time spent researching the market, buying equipment, and planning the facility was a luxury most businesses rarely have.
“That we could build this thing from the ground up, and we had enough financial backing that we didn’t have to be in business the first day the first machine was set up, was helpful,” he says. “However, a lot of people who have come through here looking at starting stone shops say, ‘You’ve done it right.’ And, I think we have.”
Approximately 20,000 ft² of the Pollux facility is devoted to actual manufacturing (with currently nine associates in a single shift). And, the heart of that system is a Löffler CPS (continuous processing system) that utilizes motorized conveyors to feed slabs into the bridge saw and then onto other destinations in the manufacturing process.
“We have a Löffler TB-600 bridge saw with motorized in-feeds,” says Pfender. “Once the pieces have been cut to size, a device flips them 180°, then feeds them onto a transfer cart and then to roller conveyors.”
The roller conveyor system acts as work in process (WIP) storage, as well as a transport system for work pieces.
For pieces continuing in the system, they’re funneled into the KSL linear-edge processor, which flat-polishes and chamfers, or into the Vario 6, which shapes and polishes radius edges.
Once that’s completed, each piece is then directed to hand-finishing or into one of two Löffler dual-table CNC machines. Even those pieces going through the CNCs are then fed to hand-finishing for touch-up work, fitting, cleaning and final inspection.
“From there, they go to our shipping areas where we package the finished countertops and ship anywhere in the country,” Pfender says.
That “anywhere in the country,” may be a bit of an exaggeration for now, but Pollux’s customer base extends way beyond its Twin Cities location to service installers in Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Pennsylvania.
“We had folks come from Pennsylvania to look at the plant that are buying machinery and getting into the Zodiaq business,” Pfender explains. “They’re outsourcing to us until they get their machinery in and their capacity up and running.”
Many of Pollux’s customers are authorized Zodiaq installers, including those who buy the quartz material at Hallmark, then have it delivered next door for fabrication. The company is finding another niche taking on overflow work from other fabricators.
“We recently had a large stone shop – a nationally known one here in town – call us to ask if we had time available on our CNCs,” he says. “We did, and they said, ‘We have 22 countertops that need to have sink cutouts put in. Would you be willing to do them?’”
The answer was an enthusiastic yes. Pollux’s COO explains that his system is designed for volume, so he would rather work with his competitors than against them.
“Our philosophy is let’s cooperate and work together to shorten lead times and get happier customers out there,” Pfender says. “That’s going to grow the market as a whole.”
Perhaps nowhere is Pfender’s commitment to cooperation more evident than at the very front end of Pollux’s manufacturing process. With so many independent installers submitting templates for the company to cut, it’s easy to see that a job could go very wrong very easily without strict controls.
The company receives jobs as CAD files or templates that it digitizes or – more commonly – files created using Dietrich Software’s EasyTops program.
“We add edge profiles and sink cutouts and seams and things of that type,” Pfender explains. “Then, that creates the code the machines on the plant floor need.”
However, because of the possibility of problems, the company’s customer-service associates look at each drawing carefully; if it doesn’t look quite right, there’s contact with the person ordering the job.
“We have drawing standards and we have a check list,” he says. “When a drawing first comes in, we send an information receipt that we’re reviewing it. If it’s acceptable, the next communication the customer receives is an order confirmation that says, ‘Here’s the price, here’s the drawing to verify, and within 24 hours we’ll begin manufacturing.’
“If the information isn’t complete, we notify the customer that the job is on hold and for what reasons. Once we receive the corrected information they receive confirmation and we start manufacturing.”
To help reduce problems further, the company has a classroom area set aside to provide hands-on training to its customers. Although designed specifically for authorized Zodiaq installers, Pfender says the plan is to offer a wide range of classes on problems such as seaming, installation, templating and more. (The first beta classes began last month.)
EasyTops is also a quoting and pricing program, and with the development of the Pollux Website and the distribution of EasyTops disks, the company envisions kitchen and bath dealers and home centers providing quotes directly to their customers.
“If a customer wants a granite countertop or a Zodiaq one, there’s no reason the person should have to come back three days later,” says Pfender. “We think it’s ludicrous that you can walk into a car dealer and get a quote on all the options you want, but you can’t do that for a Zodiaq countertop with a kitchen and bath dealer.”
Although Pfender talks about the kitchen and bath dealers, the company is already finding some of its market is coming from commercial jobs – beyond those 22 sink cutouts.
“We’re doing hospitals, cafeterias and universities,” he says. “Residentially we’ve done some condominium projects. One of our installers, working with a number of large builders in the Twin Cities area, did some 9,600 installations last year, and we’re in with these folks.”
At present, Pollux is doing more Zodiaq than natural-stone fabrication. However, as the company starts with a second shift, Pfender says he sees stone playing a larger part. Over time, he expects natural stone to be 60 percent to 70 percent of the business mix.
“As more people become educated on the benefits of engineered stone, that may shift, but I think we’ll always be doing more natural stone,” he says. “The way we handle material lends itself pretty well to the natural stone. We have to do some rodding and things of that type that we don’t do with Zodiaq, but it’s not a problem.”
One benefit the company has is easy access to Zodiaq through Hallmark. Currently, a customer wanting a natural-stone surface fabricated ships the slab to Pollux’s facility, but in time Pfender expects to stock at least some common granite slabs for even quicker turnaround.
Shipping is a big issue for Pollux. The company has designed its own steel shipping containers (a patent is pending) that incorporate a V-frame into a container that’s 4’ X 5’ X 10’.
“We’re able to put the equivalent of about four kitchens into one of these containers, strap them down and then load them into box trailers,’ Pfender explains. “With the carriers we use, we’ve worked out a deal where we pay the freight going there and they bring the container back to us at a fraction of the cost.”
Does Pfender think that at some point Pollux will be shipping fabricated jobs coast-to-coast? Not necessarily – but if and when the demand is there, the decision will have to be made on whether to expand the company’s Minneapolis facility or duplicate it in other parts of the country.
Until that happens, he says he and the rest of the Pollux associates will continue to improve their processes so that the time from when the company receives a file until it ships the finished product is five days – or less.
“This is an evolution for us,” Pfender concludes. “We’re learning every day. From a management standpoint, it may make more sense to have small facilities in different regions, but as we go on we may learn more and say we can solve the logistics issues and ship all over the country at reasonable rates.
Original publication ©2004 Western Business Media Inc. Use licensed to the author.
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