Top Repair - Your Countertops Like New Again
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Articles by Jim Heaphy
for Kitchen & Bath Design News

Counter Fabrication Gets Automated - January 2002

Many kitchen countertops are made in standardized sizes and shapes. Typically, they are about 25" deep, and are either rectangular in shape, or joined together to form simple "L" shapes or "U" shapes. In such simple kitchen layouts, it's usually a straightforward procedure to take measurements from installed cabinets in order to prepare a simple shop drawing that will allow the countertops to be fabricated quickly and reliably.

More complex layouts present considerably greater challenges. Walls and cabinets may be installed at unusual angles. Cabinets may have unusual projections at sinks and ranges. Cabinet doors or shelf units at the end of a run of cabinets may be curved. Countertops may extend into greenhouse windows. The design may call for diagonal cabinets to be installed at 45 degrees, but job site realities may force installers to change that angle.

The variations are endless. In such kitchens, it is often necessary to produce a template in effect, a full-size pattern or mockup of the finished countertop in order to ensure that the final product fits accurately.

Template making has always been a time-consuming process fraught with doubt and confusion. The responsible person has to assemble a lightweight, easily moved pattern of what may be a large and complex shape, and then break it down for transportation to the shop, where it must be reassembled accurately on the workbench. Chances for errors, damage and misinterpretation abound.

The techniques I'm most familiar with involve either sheets of corrugated cardboard or thin strips of plywood. Both are clumsy and present many risks of fingers being burned by hot melt adhesive or whacked with tack hammers. Finished templates are usually covered with obscure notations, arrows and hash marks. It's often difficult for the fabrication crew to visualize job site conditions when looking at such a template.

And how does this crude process fit in with the countertop fabrication industry's trend toward automation? Some shops use a big, expensive stationary digitizer to transform the cardboard or plywood template into a computer file to drive a CNC router. That may be a step in the right direction, but only a small step.

A Step Forward
ETemplate Photo is a much bigger step forward for countertop fabricators. ETemplate Systems is a division of Tri-Tech Solutions, a company specializing in computerized technologies for manufacturing.

ETemplate Photo is a concept so simple, it's amazing that it works with such accuracy. Digital photographs taken on the job site are used to develop an accurate electronic template of the countertop layout.

The system involves only a few components. The heart of the system is a digital camera capable of holding 340 mb on a hard disk, equivalent to 250 photos. The ETemplate Photo software is the brains of the system, and is installed on a computer at the fabricator's office. Also essential are two types of markers or dots, placed at intervals along the wall scribe line and also along the edges of the cabinets or old countertops.

Scales are used to establish dimensional benchmarks. These are accurate yardsticks, if you will, with dot markers at each end. Manuals, training and technical support complete the package

Upon arriving at the job site, the operator places the proper markers at intervals around the installation, and then places a scale so that it's visible in each photo. Then, the operator takes a series of photos. Each marker must appear in at least two photos, and given the large capacity of the camera, it's best to take lots of photos.

The photos are then transferred to the fabricator's computer, either as an e-mail attachment or by a direct USB cable link. The ETemplate software then references the various markers and scales to transform the set of photos into a precisely dimensioned electronic image of the cabinet layout, and ultimately, the countertop. Overhangs, where appropriate, can be added automatically. The complex configuration of full-height backsplashes can be included where needed.

The photos and computer program are so accurate that they can even analyze how level the cabinets are within a small fraction of an inch, identifying where shimming or other corrective action is needed to result in a perfectly level countertop. After error checking and notations, the result is an electronic shop drawing of the finished countertop.

The system can output in three different ways, depending on the fabricator's needs and current level of automation. It can produce standardized shop drawings on 8-1/2"x11" paper. With a roll feed plotter, it can print full-size templates on either paper or Mylar. Or, best of all, it can send the necessary CAD/CAM files directly to a CNC router to produce the countertop.

The benefits of digital photo templating are many. Accuracy is improved, and the possibility of math or interpretation errors is reduced. No raw materials, such as cardboard or plywood, are needed. The system is compact, so the person handling field measuring and templating can travel in a compact car rather than a more expensive truck or van. A pictorial history is created, which can be used to brief installation crews, refresh memories and document job site problems. The results are the same, whether the photos are taken of bare installed cabinets, or of old countertops about to be replaced. Use of such cutting-edge technology enhances employee pride and the company's image.

Big automated fabricators tend to market in much larger territories than smaller fabricators using older technologies. Electronic templating lends itself to regional fabrication centers located many miles from job sites, since the templates can be transmitted long distances quickly by e-mail. Shipping of physical templates is eliminated, which saves time and eliminates the risk of damage. Through digital photography, the remote fabrication team can "see" the job site from hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

If you are committed to automation in your business, you need to learn more about ETemplate Photo. It's an exciting product. For information, contact ETemplate Systems at 919-676-9093 or check out the company's Web site at www.
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