Custom marble kitchen countertops and bathroom vanities are beautiful to behold, but bears to build. Nobody knows that better than the workers who handle and install the marble. In the Tampa Bay and West Central Florida region, West Central Granite and Marble handles many of those projects out of their 10-person, 7,000 square foot facility in Thonotosassa, Florida. The company cuts anywhere between five and ten large granite slabs every day, turning around a finished product in 3-4 days.
Since its founding in 1997, the company has been performing granite installation with a three-man crew, installing 1-2 kitchens daily at an average cost of $40 per square foot of granite (factoring labor and material). The cost of labor is more easily understood when the handling process is described.
The process begins when the company purchases rough granite slabs from wholesalers and brokers who then deliver it to the facility on a flatbed truck. The slabs are arranged on A-frames, unpackaged and unprotected. The company’s delicate and meticulous process starts here.
First, workers remove the slabs with a forklift that uses a pinch clamp to grab the granite. The slabs are then transported either to the yard to be stored, or into the facility for immediate customization. Upon entering the facility, the forklift places the granite onto the saw station where the granite is cut into smaller, more manageable pieces; roughly the size of an average countertop.
It was at this stage in the process that Keith Rose, founder and president of West Central Granite, eventually found himself in a precarious position.
“In our business, it’s not practical to have a forklift tote slabs of granite around a facility for each stage of production, and while jib-style lifts and I-beams are sturdy, we were looking for something that could move throughout the entire facility rather than just a limited area” said Rose. “Generally, this left us moving the slabs by hand. We’d place a large slab on a dolly, balance it as best we could, and physically move it from the saw. With countertops weighing anywhere between 80 and 1,000 pounds, it took four men to move the material. The procedure was bringing the shop to a standstill.”
Need for Better Precision and Safety
West Central Granite did not have the luxury of employing a large staff because of the current tentative nature of that market.
“It wasn’t realistic to think we could continue operations like this. Having four workers move granite first and foremost wasn’t safe for the workers, it put the product at risk for damage and it was taxing on our bottom line.”
West Central Granite had recently installed a computer numerical control (CNC) stone center that cuts the stone and profiles its edges. It shapes the granite to the exact size desired and creates any sink cut outs.
“It was time that our movements around the facility matched the precision as the CNC” said Rose.
Like other operations of its kind looking to improve the workflow in its operation, West Central Granite was faced with multiple options, specifically material lifting options. Ultimately, the company ended up evaluating I-Beam Cranes and Work Station Cranes, after seeing the latter at a tradeshow. The Rochester Institute of Technology recently researched the same scenario that West Central Granite was facing. The study investigated the productivity and safety of the two common lifting solutions.
The RIT study compared manually operated, traditional I-Beam cranes to Work Station Cranes (WSC) in relation to push and pull standards that were developed for consideration by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The study sought to compare the standards with the type of push/pull forces experienced in industrial conditions on I-Beam and WSCs, and to determine the difference in productivity for both types of cranes. The study operated under the principle that in order for the application to be considered “safe,” a worker should not exceed 33 percent of his or her work capacity.
The study’s data indicated that WSCs deliver lifting comparable capabilities with less physical effort for most employees. The result was ease of movement that was associated with the WSC’s design. The WSC offers reduced dead weight friction and lower initial and sustained movement forces that in many scenarios allows workers to position and move loads on WSC’s more easily than on I-Beam cranes. In the workplace, this translates into reduced risk of job-related injury, as well as significant increases in work productivity. The data in the report made an impact on West Central Granite.
Adopting a Workstation Crane
Rose decided to install a workstation crane in his facility (supplied by Gorbel). The installation took two days and his company was able to continue working during that time. The crane didn’t require foundational or floor changes, nor did West Central Granite’s workflow process have to change.
The company can now safely move the granite slabs through their facility. Where dollies and workers once struggled with the awkward load of a countertop, the WSC now eases the material from the CNC to the finishing area, where the granite is polished, touched up and edged. The WSC also lifts and precisely places the finished countertops back onto the A-frames in preparation for delivery and installation.
In addition to the productivity advantages, the new process has benefits to the workers as well. The slabs weigh on average between a few hundred and 1,000 pounds; using the old system, this weight was divided by only a few people, meaning each worker was carrying 20 lbs. per square foot. This manual process was slow and taxing on the workforce.
“Installing the workstation crane has reduced the risk associated with manually lifting such heavy material” says Rose. “Plus, employees can now provide higher quality work. When you aren’t demanding as much physical strain from your workforce, you are guaranteed a more able employee.”
Lifting the product by hand was a costly risk. A damaged piece of material averages a $750-$1000 loss for the company. West Central Granite also frequently cuts and moves one-of-a-kind, priceless pieces; damage to such items is virtually immeasurable for the company. The WSC has decreased the risk of product damage, thus saving the company from such losses.
As only one operator is needed to man the WSC system, operations are now much more precise than three workers trying to coordinate their movements to place the material in sync while avoiding product damage and protecting themselves.
According to Rose, even the largest pieces to come through the shop can be handled by two people with the crane.
“Let’s say we are custom-cutting a countertop for a 10-foot by 5-foot kitchen island,” he says. “That stone might easily weigh half a ton. First, we would cut it into large square blank. Then, using the crane, we’d move the rough cut slab to our CNC machine, where they would be custom-cut to the islands specifications.”
The people who do the actual fabricating are the ones who maneuver the stone into place, according to Rose. “That has helped productivity, because we no longer need people whose only job is to move the stone.”
“The employees really appreciate that they no longer have to push heavy stones around all day. In fact, that has helped us to recruit and retain good employees” he adds.
No Job for Forklifts
When it comes to handling the largest stones, the crane has provided another benefit, Rose says. “Before, when we used to move extra-large pieces that were too big for the hand dolly, we’d actually drive a forklift carrying the stone through the interior of the shop. We had to take time to clear a path for the forklift. Then it would drive past computers and other equipment in very tight quarters. It was a dangerous situation. With the crane, we’ve eliminated the need for that maneuver.”
The WSC has also helped West Central Granite increase profitability. Because its saw can only cut so fast, the company wasn’t able to speed up its operations, but was able to make them more efficient.
West Central Granite is able to produce the same volume of material with half people. The crane has increased the company’s productivity per person and helped their bottom line.
“Employing a smaller workforce saves us about $30,000 per person per year in labor costs. With that figure, the crane has paid for itself in about eight months.”
The company is now looking to build out the WSC system, adding on to it so that it can reach another area of the facility.
Kevin Duhamel is a North American product manager with Gorbel Inc. He is also a certified fall protection trainer and inspector.