In StoneTalk Episode 32, Patrick speaks with Gerry VanderBas of Breton USA.
- What to consider when buying a saw or router (power, consumables, business needs … so many things)
- The importance of software to a hardware purchase
- What about robots?
- How factors like mitre cuts affect your equipment purchases
If you have stories or insights that you’d like to share with other fabricators, please reach out to Patrick.
Patrick: Welcome to Stone Talk, the podcast for counter top fabricators. Brought to you by Moraware, makers of JobTracker scheduling software and CounterGo estimating software for counter top fabricators. I’m your host, Patrick Foley. Today I’m speaking with Gerry Van Der Bas with Breton USA. Let’s give him a call.
Gerry: Gerry, speaking.
Patrick: Hey, Gerry, Patrick from Moraware. How are you?
Gerry: I’m great. How are you, Patrick?
Patrick: Good. Is this still a good time to chat?
Gerry: It sure is.
Patrick: Awesome. Well, let’s dive in then. So you work for Breton which I understand is one of the biggest saw manufacturers in the world, in our industry. So what do you do with Breton? What’s your role?
Gerry: Patrick, I’m the national sales manager. I was appointed from the field back in 2011. Was fortunate to be the first American given such a position here in the country in 2011 after having a good decade or so of Italian presence here.
Gerry: I’ve been pretty much managing. I have a crew of about 10 salesmen. Between three and four now direct guys and another seven independent agents all over the country and Canada.
Patrick: And sales must be going pretty well. I saw you at Coverings, but I was just walking by, and you were so busy with customers I didn’t want to interrupt you. So I figured that’s probably a good sign that sales are doing okay?
Gerry: Yeah, it’s always interesting unfortunately at shows that you don’t get the chance to give everybody that you would like to the same attention and really enough time. I feel like I’m putting a lot of fires out at shows. But yes, we’re doing quite well. Last year was pretty much the best year in our North American History.
Gerry: And I can say that so far this year we’re on a pace maybe to even eclipse that.
Patrick: That’s great.
Gerry: Yes, it’s been quite good.
Patrick: I wasn’t buying a saw, so I figured other people were a little more important than me at that particular moment. So it’s all good. So tell me about the saws that are selling right now. And again, recognizing that I’m not a fabricator, I sell software to fabricators, so some of this stuff, you have to break down into really basic terms for me. I might get some of the lingo wrong as well. So what is the big focus these days? Is everything digital? Or is there still a market for non-digital saws? What are you selling?
Gerry: I can tell you that until last year we kept manual equipment in our product line. I do offer a large manual saw that’s got about an 800 millimeter blade, for guys doing a little bit more than counter top work, or counter top work and some billet and block. But basically for the small 16 inch blade, 14 inch blade bridge saw, we’ve entered the market with what we call a Monobloc CNC. That is in a price category 30 or 40% more than what I might sell the equivalent manual saw for.
Patrick: That’s not much.
Gerry: And that’s selling in such volume now that we’ve really, really gotten away from the small manual bridge saw. So I do think there will always be a market for a small manual bridge saw for a guy who’s starting out. But we’ve been filling our pipeline with digital equipment, and we’ve got the manufacturing process down to a science, and it’s really become very difficult for us to justify filling the pipeline with smaller, less costly machines at this point. So that’s where we are.
Patrick: Right. So let’s say I was just starting out. Let’s say I even, I worked for another fabricator so I know the industry well, reasonably well, and I know I’m going to succeed. It’s not something where I’m dipping my toe in. If you’re telling me that a digital saw is only 30 to 40% more than a bridge saw, should I make the leap and go straight to the digital saw then? Or if I’m just starting out, does it still make more sense to save as much money as possible and start with manual?
Gerry: Honestly, Patrick, it really depends. The price of labor and so forth in today’s market is so high considering that the average sawyer with a manual saw can produce a layout per hour roughly, if he’s good and organized. You have a situation with a CNC saw where I can do that same job in about a half an hour. So when someone departs from a company, to me, it depends on whether he starts with zero sales or does he start with already a kitchen a day or a couple kitchens a day? Because with that kind of additional production capability, the automation, the more accuracy of the cut that you get from a CNC saw, you always have that question.
Does the 30 to 40% or more price difference, can it be justified by additional throughput and less cost when it comes to the installation? So it’s a hard question to answer. But certainly I can say that there’s financing is very well available these days for someone whose credit is right and who has the right background in business. And so usually a manual saw at this stage in the game is an interim move for somebody and not a more permanent one.
Patrick: And I think you pointed out one of the key factors to help make the decision really depends on your skills and the skills of the labor you’re able to hire. So if you happen to be a great manual sawyer or have access to hiring a really good manual sawyer, that might color your decision significantly. If you don’t have any bias towards those skills, then it’s also gonna color your decision to consider whether it’s easier to find someone who can program CNC equipment and get slabs on and off it versus someone doing the physical cutting. Is that a reasonable…?
Gerry: Yeah, for sure. For sure. And right now, even our most entry level machine actually has the ability to be very easily converted into a manual machine. So in other words, it can run in a manual mode with a line laser just like a regular bridge saw, and this I think gives the flexibility of our customers to kind of choose on which type of job that they might wanna cut manually and which type of job they might not. Or not necessarily be forced to make sure that the one or two guys that they have trained as a CNC operator/programmer is in that day, they’re not necessarily down.
Patrick: Well, let’s talk about some of the other reasons someone buys some of these major pieces of equipment. So you’ve got the CNC bridge saw that you just described, but there’s also water saws and CNC routers. And again, I might not be getting the terms quite right. But what would make someone determine whether they should start with one of those three pieces of equipment versus another? If I’m building my business, why should I go in one order versus another order with those major purchases?
Gerry: I have a philosophy on that, that I’ve held true to since weâ€¦Breton was one of the first innovators of actually the water jet and sawing concept. And we call that machine the Combicut. Obviously it’s sold under numerous trade names with now numerous competitors. But for me, you have a situation where you have a water jet that is a little bit more maintenance intense than a typical bridge saw because you have to maintain the water jet components, the [inaudible 00:08:35], and tubes, and nozzles and things like this. You also have a much more power requirement in your shop, and you have to manage the garnet and the cleaning of the tank. And there’s a lot of different costs.
Patrick: When you say more power requirements, that’s interesting to me. It’s literally drawing more watts? Is that what you mean?
Gerry: It definitely is. And when you have a water jet and you add it to a CNC saw, for instance, you have the power that’s being drawn by the saw. And then you have the power that’s being drawn by the water jet unit itself in order to keep the pressure up for the water jet operation, which is basically constant, because basically the water jet has to be on demand. And so with all those costs, you’ve got probably a 30 or 40% higher cost of operation than a typical saw. The consumable on the water jet is probably a minor factor. Because when you have a water jet saw, the idea is to try to run the water jet, which is the slower of the two operations, only where you have to.
And you don’t have quite the cost that you do on the consumable when you have a water jet only machine. And so for me, when I decide which to focus on, unless a customer is resigned one way or another, I look at the total production. And when I mean production I mean, what is the downstream operation from the saw? Am I processing the piece by hand? Do I have CNC machines? And what is it that I can do to potentially get more throughput in my shop to justify the additional costs of operating the machine? And that’s kind of interesting because I’ve done some homework, and I know that certainly you can save some time cutting out the sink on the water jet. But does it save enough time during the day for me to achieve some more throughput that I can get paid for?
And so as soon as I see a company, for instance, that has two CNCs, I know that I can save the sink cut out, for instance, and all the other radius cut outs, for instance, on the Combicut, and save the time on the CNC. At the end of the day, I have some more accounts receivable. And quite frankly that’s where I start to see in my mind that this customer is thinking of a water jet saw. I know some other companies have a different idea about that and they talk about the waste that you can save when you have a water jet, so that you don’t have to over cut into pieces. But at the end, I think really the net waste rather than the gross waste is what has to be considered, and really at the end of the day, I don’t think it’s that much.
Patrick: That’s very interesting, it sounds a little bit like the book, “The Goal.” All right, when you say throughput are you speaking in those terms of throughput accounting in theory of constraints or no? Eliyahu Goldratt, I think is his name.
Gerry: For me, Pat, I’m thinking about what can I make today that I can get paid for today or tomorrow? And I think if I’m gonna operate at a higher cost, then I have to be able to justify the higher cost with the higher receivables, and it’s as simple as that. And I think necessarily a water jet saw being your first move, without knowing the other types of operations other than counter tops that you might do, for instance, you might have a guy that is doing medallions and mosaics and things like that where the water jet would really help and give him some additional receivables. But generally when I think counter tops, I think, “How can I ship an extra kitchen, for instance, in a day so I can get paid for the additional costs?”
Patrick: And for that you have to look at the overall production environment not just a saw in isolation. Is that part of what you’re saying?
Patrick: That’s actually a really helpful way to think about that. I think that’s very interesting. And if people haven’t read the book, “The Goal,” what you’re saying is a very summarized version of the topic of that very interesting book about manufacturing processes that essentially say the same thing. You’ve gotta look at the whole process and optimize the whole process, which usually means there’s, at any one time, there’s one part you’re caring about more than the other. But you don’t wanna get emotionally involved, you don’t wanna say, “Oh, everyone has a water jet, so I’m gonna get a water jet.” No, you have to look at the overall throughput, as you said, and decide what’s gonna get you there most efficiently.
Gerry: Exactly. I believe in a lot of the old Henry Ford principles where you look at what is taking you the most time and probably when you get to the point in your existing…where you’re thinking about automation, you try to address in the least amount of floor space what is the biggest of your problems and what is the biggest of your bottleneck? And sometimes it can be a water jet saw or sometimes I can say, “Wait, I have a great manual sawyer. He’s doing a wonderful job I have no problems with that, but I have problems with all of the pieces that he makes getting out the door.” And so a lot of times my first conversation with somebody is about a CNC router to do the rest of the work.
Patrick: Very cool. Let’s define two quick terms just to make sure I understand them. When you say “Monobloc” does that mean…essentially saying that there’s just one blade mechanism on the saw? And when you say Combicut does that mean there’s both a blade and a water jet?
Gerry: Sure. A Monobloc saw is different than what we call a traditional three piece saw. A Monobloc saw is a machine where the base and the shoulders are actually connected and in one component. And so this is a bridge saw that goes on the floor without needing a whole lot of foundation work. Whereas the traditional three piece, you’re either building concrete shoulders, or the manufacturer or the customer is supplying steel shoulders that still require to be fixed to the ground. Okay, when we talk about Combicut. Combicut can also be a three piece system with steel shoulders or concrete. But it’s not offered in a Monobloc construction configuration.
Patrick: Okay. All right. And you mentioned some of the competition, a lot of people entering the market. When I was in Las Vegas earlier this year at Stone Expo, it seemed to my eye like there were more saw manufacturers than ever there. Am I imagining that or is it in fact true that more saw manufacturers have entered the market? Or do you not pay attention?
Gerry: I can say that going to Stone Expo is a real microcosm actually. To make a better examination of that, if you go to the Verona show, you’ll see companies that never have entered the American market for lack of interest or for lack of adequate representation or numerous other reasons. I can say that a lot of them that I see at the big Verona show are now starting to create a presence here in the U.S. And I think that basically, my explanation for that is only that the market is quite good right now. And to be honest, I get concerned when this happens, as a company with longevity here in the United States and Canada, I get concerned that if the market does not stay at its current pace, will all these players that have sold equipment still be part of the program?
Patrick: History would tend to suggest that, that’s going to go up and down with the market a little bit. And obviously you want people to buy their saws from you, but let me give you a chance to differentiate Breton a little bit. But speaking as generically as possible, what things should customers be looking for when they buy a saw? Obviously I’m going to assume Breton delivers on these things but it’s a fair question. What should any customer be looking for when they go out to buy a saw?
Gerry: Well, in today’s day and age okay, the saw technology has gotten to the point where I think there is quite a few companies, to be honest, that are capable of making a pretty good saw. The biggest challenge, I think, for modern stone fabricators is finding a partner digitally. And I can’t say that there’s as many companies, especially in the U.S. market at the moment, who can be a true partner when it comes to technical support and all of the things necessary to actually support a CNC machine. To be able to get somebody on the phone when I have an alarm and can’t make the machine move, it’s a little different.
As far as the mechanics of a machine, you wanna look for a machine that’s got a nice heavy bridge. You wanna look at the mounting of the spindle inside it that’s hanging on the column and see that you’re gonna have a machine that will operate even in the toughest stones with the right horsepower and still cut accurately and not have a whole lot of vibration. I think Breton is among definitely some limited company that makes things at the heaviest available. But we have a history of possibly over designing some of our machines because we know that really the stone environment is probably the worst environment in the world with water and abrasives and things of that nature.
And so ours tend to be investment pieces that last a long time, and we engineer them usually with more horsepower than is necessary, a bigger bridge than what’s necessary, bigger axis motors. And at the end, we choose electronics from sources like Siemens that basically are world class sources. And this way we have some redundancy of parts inventory and things like that in countries all over the world.
Patrick: I’m curious about, I’ve always been interested in the slow adoption of certain things. Like quartz took a while to take off, and then we’re still quite early in the process of ultra compact surfaces like Dekton taking off. When you talk about the durability of a machine and being able to cut through difficult stone, are materials like Dekton one of the ones where that would make a difference? Or Dekton doesn’t make a difference for what you were talking about in terms of durability, it’s some other type of stone cutting that you were talking about?
Gerry: Dekton and Lapitec and some of the other ultra compact surfaces have a very high hardness, and if you could put that in perspective for a moment, that in the metal industry they actually use ceramics like this as cutting elements for steel. So you can imagine that the torque involved in removing that material and, of course, the blade necessary is somewhat specific. There’s definitely a sweet spot that can be found, if a machine has the right torque profile, to do a very good job with all of these ultra compact surfaces. But again, because it’s so hard, the lateral forces that the machine is subject to are quite a bit more than what typical stone or quartz might be.
And so all of the things I said earlier about the construction of the machine certainly come into play. Because the harder the material that you cut, the more wear and the more forces that get put on the machine. So the machine really needs to be designed properly, I think, to do this kind of work long-term.
Patrick: That makes sense to me. And again, not every market is experiencing adoption of ultra compact surfaces, but if you want to have that flexibility, that would be an area you’d have to look at.
Gerry: You bet.
Patrick: So I’m a software guy. Is the software from one manufacturer pretty much the same as the software from another? Or is the software that people would use to interact with your saw, is that something that is differentiated? And let me even be specific, we have friends at Slabsmith. Does your saw use Slabsmith or does it use something like it? Do everyone use the same CAD program or is that an area where there’s much differentiation?
Gerry: I think there is much differentiation between the different manufacturers and the software that they provide. There is one common denominator though, which is the fact that we all pretty much have the ability to use a DWG or a DXF file as the basis for a program. Some companies are using third party companies like Alphacam and EasySTONE. Breton ourselves, we have a fairly large company and our own internal IT designers that design the software. And in general, the reason why we decided to go our way is we felt that since we were the innovators, for instance, in the Combicut in five axis water jet paths for a machine that has a blade, if I were to use third party manufacturers as my source, then I would be giving the know-how that we’ve come up with to them to use with other competitors.
And so that was our main reason for departing. As far as Slabsmith, the Slabsmith resulting file is basically a nested DXF file which comes into my program as a layered DXF, one of the layers being the outside perimeter of the slab and then the layout. And essentially gets tool passed, basically meaning you’re selecting the various sides to be processed, and selecting the feeds and speeds, which in our case is assigned by the material. And you essentially are doing all of the tool pathing and programming on a secondary program.
Patrick: And one that you provide.
Gerry: I have a similar program to Slabsmith called FABmaster. And the main difference between ourselves and Slabsmith is that my software, FABmaster, also does the tool pathing at the same time as the design. So it could be either way or both.
Patrick: That’s interesting. Again, I’m not in a position to say which approach is better, but it’s interesting to me to note that there are differences there, so that’s probably something you wanna look at to see if you prefer one over the other.
Patrick: And what about robot saws? I interviewed someone who sells a robot saw. And I again, I’m not a fabricator, but I’ve talked with customers, and there’s certainly interest in robot saws. How do you see the difference between robot saws and the kind of thing that you do? And what are the high level pros and cons as those affect the market?
Gerry: As far as the robots, it is very interesting technology actually. And certainly Breton as a company is no stranger to robots because you can imagine that in our factory where we make the machines and make various components of the machines, we’re actually automatically loading our machines using very similar robots to what are being sold as a saw at the moment. As far as what do I think are the benefits, I think people are liking the fact that you have a small work envelope and can get a lot of work done. In a small work envelope.
Patrick: You mean in a small space? Does envelope mean physical space?
Gerry: The physical floor space.
Patrick: Okay, okay. That’s interesting.
Gerry: And the reason for that is because a robot, unlike a bridge saw, can possibly move to multiple tanks by rotating. And so therefore you can basically be keeping those tanks pretty close together and machining pieces in a smaller work envelope. What I think might be the advantage to a traditional bridge saw is the fact that I have no cantilever. In other words, my bridge saw is supported by shoulders at both sides. And essentially, when I make, for instance, a point to point move, I use two axis. Okay, a typical bridge saw, that’s a five axis, has x, y, z. So left to right, front to back, up and down. And to go from point to point to begin a cut, I have to basically interpolate two axis to position and then one to cut.
When I have a robot, I have to interpolate at least three axis. I have to rotate the base, I have to go up and down, and I have to go in and out at least to make the same cut. The problem that I see with that is that when you are using a device that rotates and trying to extrapolate that into a linear tolerance, there’s always some imperfection. And the more instances where you have to do that, the more that imperfection stacks. And so I don’t think that a robot is capable of the type of tolerance that you can have on a bridge saw. Now, someone might say, “Gerry, but we’re not making space shuttles here. This is not an aerospace, we have to make kitchen counter tops.”
But again, if you look at the potential downstream operation of a piece that’s been cut on a saw, you hope eventually that maybe this piece would go on to a CNC router which will be using tools that has a very specific depth of cut that it has to take. And so if I cannot instruct the machine where exactly that piece is on the table because it’s not as accurately as I had it drawn, it’s very difficult to start by cutting the correct depths. Which has to do with tool life management, which has to do with accuracy of the fit of the part, and everything in the field and a lot of other things.
Patrick: Yeah, so it’s not gonna look…it could potentially affect the end piece not looking as good once it comes of the CNC, but also as you said, if the tool isn’t going exactly where it expects, then you could be putting just a slight amount of torque or stress on the tool itself. Which means it’s not gonna last as long. So again, you come back to the overall production capability not just that one piece. Is that fair?
Gerry: Correct. And then the only other matter that I question, it’s just with the long cantilever of a robot when you’re extended and you’re trying to cut, for instance, say a straight piece or a back splash that has to lay up. If I cannot cut that back splash perfectly straight and it’s on a little bit of an angle because of the gravity of the extension of the arm, I just wonder if it’s going to have challenges with that. But I’ve seen it myself in a shop here in Pennsylvania local to my home, where it had some problems, but this is with an older machine, and so I’m not sure where they are on that.
Patrick: Yeah. It’s interesting. Again, competition drives innovation, so it’s nice that there are different approaches and different players. One of the other concerns that I’ve heard, again I’m not a fabricator, is from a fabricator doing miters who does a lot of miters saying that in his evaluation, the robot saw it didn’t work as effectively for that or didn’t do it, something along those lines. What about miters? Do you have a product that helps with miters? Or is that not something you’ve done yet?
Gerry: Any one of my five axis saws, the fifth axis ends up being the tilting axis.
Patrick: So you can make nice miters.
Gerry: You bet. What I’ve done though to actually augment some of the challenges with a miter is, of course, when you program a job to start at point A and travel to point B and put a miter, of course, on a water jet sawing table, you don’t have the kind of rigidity. You basically have slabs and the material is sitting at slabs. You also sometimes, especially with granite, you have the thickness variation of the stone inherent from the wire saw cut. And the problem is is actually landing that miter when it is coming in at the place where it is assuming is clean. Okay, so what we’ve done is we’ve got a device that measures the thickness of the slab and then basically allows the saw to come in at the actual travel of the blade, instead of presuming that it’s coming from a perfect plain, if that makes any sense.
Patrick: Kind of, I think so. I won’t attempt to re-state it, but hopefully…if that’s interesting to someone listening, hopefully they will contact Gerry and find out more information there. Last little thing, a year or so ago I got to visit the Cambria plant in Minnesota, which is a very interesting tour if ever anyone gets the opportunity, and if I’m not mistaken, they said they used Breton equipment in the making of their quartz. And do I recall correctly that Breton invented the quartz process? That that started from you guys and then other people licensed it? Is that right?
Gerry: That’s correct. What’s today, generally in the U.S., we call engineered stone, or compound in Europe, is a Breton invention from the mid to late 1980s. And we have an international patent on the main part of the plant which is called the vacuum vibrocompression, which is basically how the slabs are formed. I’m not saying that we’re the only company in the world that can produce a quartz or other conglomerate based slab. But we’ve been doing this now for a long enough time where we have a very large market share of the equipment, and Cambria happens to be one of our very good customers here in the states, and we have several others.
Patrick: That’s very cool. So let’s wrap on a almost impossible question, but I’ll give you a chance to answer it in some way. So what’s next for Breton? Or what do you see happening in the industry? Where do you see opportunities for innovation like the quartz that was invented in the 80s? What things do you see coming next?
Gerry: I think right now, as far as materials…As you said earlier, the compact surfaces, I think, are pretty much the next generation. I don’t think eventually it will at all replace quartz. As far as machinery though, we’re at the stage where we’ve made bridge saws, water jet saws, CNC routers, line polishers, as capable and as fast as one can physically, actually cut the stone. And the limiting factor at this point is the tooling actually, is the development of the cutting element. And I think that most of us now have some extra power, some extra speed available for when that development happens. But absent something that I can’t predict as far as a completely new technology other than sawing or water jetting, I don’t see much happening until we improve the consumable part of the business.
Patrick: That’s super interesting. So you did have an answer. That’s something I will keep an eye on over the next few years, to talk with customers and hear what they have to say as the cutting elements improve. Well, thank you for that.
Gerry: And the other thing I guess I would say would be software. I would say that we’ve been working on a lot of things here lately. Our saws are one of the first in the industry, at the moment, to use a operator platform that works very much like a smartphone. That basically allows you to model what is actually on the machine, on an offline software. And will basically allow you to modify programs on the fly when your program doesn’t necessarily make sense for the problems in the stone or various things that come up during the day. So we’ve gone to sort of an application based programming system for our saw, very much like a smartphone. And I think we are gonna continue to follow that trend because it looks like it’s gonna be durable.
Patrick: That’s also super interesting and awesome to hear since we’re in the software business as well. One thing I suspect will also happen there is more and more…let’s call it dashboard functionality, will emerge. Not just dashboard for the saw, but dashboard for the whole production environment and even beyond that into the whole company. Because right now there’s information that we have in our software, there’s information that you have in your software, and other bits in accounting, etc., etc. Eventually, as a collection of players in this industry, we’ll eventually figure out how to bring that all together and present the customer being the owner a really powerful dashboard that says, “Show me exactly what’s happening in my business.”
That’s not gonna be easy to do because it’s not going to involve just one player. A bunch of people have to figure out how things work together and we’ve all got immediate problems we have to solve. So it’s actually a really tricky problem, but I think customers will demand it more and more over time. That’s my opinion.
Gerry: You bet. And I can say to you that we’re designing our software in such a way where it’s open source and therefore it’s gonna be pretty open. And using such things as Microsoft SQL Server for databases which will eventually be, we hope, compatible with whatever technology’s developed. From ourselves, or even third parties.
Patrick: Absolutely. And we take a very similar approach. And there are what I call “glue companies” emerging like DataBridge Integrations does very interesting things tying different systems together. As different companies like yours, and ours, and various players in the market expose more of their systems, expose those end points, then ourselves and third party companies can come in and assemble them in ways that we can’t even completely envision today. But it’s gonna happen, it’s gotta happen. So, something else to watch. It’s gonna be fun.
Gerry: It sure is.
Patrick: Well, Gerry, thank you so much for spending time with me and sharing your experience and knowledge with our listeners. This was very informative, and next time I’m at Coverings, I will stay even longer until I can get your eye. I appreciate the time and I look forward to seeing you or talking to you again very soon.
Gerry: Thanks, Pat. Thanks for the opportunity.
Pat: You bet. Cheers.
Gerry: Take care. Thanks for listening to Stone Talk, the podcast for counter top fabricators. If you liked this episode, be sure to visit stonetalk.org or subscribe to Stone Talk in iTunes for more. Visit the Stone Talk Show Facebook page to join in the conversation and follow @stonetalkshow on Twitter. Stone Talk is brought to you buy Moraware, makers of JobTracker scheduling software and CounterGo estimating software for counter top fabricators. I’m your host, Patrick Foley, and I look forward to spending time with you again on the next episode of Stone Talk.