Solid Surface Enters the Engineered Stone Age
By Russ Lee
As a hybrid of sorts between natural stone and man-made solid surface, engineered stone seems to fill the need for a harder, more scratch-resistant countertop, while offering a much more consistent color palette than that created by Mother Nature. And, unlike its granite or marble cousins, it is also non-porous.
Even though engineered stone is primarily a quartz aggregate product, it seems to have more in common with solid surface than it does with granite or marble. The manufacturing process is very similar to solid surface, in that particles of varying sizes are combined together with pigmented polymer resins, which are then allowed to harden in a mold. Just before catalysis, the slurry mix is usually subjected to a vacuum to remove air, and pressure is applied to relieve stress in the finished product. The result is a slab of non-porous and relatively stable surfacing material, which is suitable for countertops, wall cladding and even flooring.
Solid surface fabricators, on the other hand, easily comprehend the advantages of polymer technology, even though diamond tooling remains something of a mystery to them. They are already used to thinking outside of the box, having watched the evolution of their industry unfold around them, and many of them are now dipping their toes into the engineered stone waters as they prepare to plunge into what is seen as an extension of their existing marketing niches.
Thus, engineered stone follows what may seem to be a convoluted route to market. Because very few fabricators have the equipment necessary to convert quartz-hard raw materials into finished countertops, fabrication is provided at the distributor level and installation is performed by the local fabricator in most instances. As a result, when one considers the falling price of granite and the inclusion of an additional step in its fabrication process, engineered stone offers little, if any, advantage when viewed from the perspective of price.
So why the big rush for heavy-hitting solid surface companies like DuPont and Formica to jump into the engineered stone fray? I believe it's because it presents a ready-made opportunity for them to expand their penetration into new surfacing territories without having to invest heavily into a marketing and distribution infrastructure. Plus, it opens up the potential for many more millions of square footage of flooring and wall cladding applications.
For their part, solid surface fabricators have become used to double and triple digit top-line growth in their businesses over the last decade. That kind of growth is intoxicating, particularly when it has been so easy to maintain due to unprecedented economic prosperity and expanding solid surface technology. Engineered stone offers fabricators a product that, like solid surface, has the potential to enhance their standing in the marketplace by offering the latest in composite materials. And, of course, the biggest prizes go to those who get there first.
Hence, many fabricators are now looking hard at CNCs and other production-oriented technology as important keys to their continued economic prosperity, where they once considered such tooling as extravagant and not adaptable to custom applications. By doing so, they hope to develop the capability to fabricate engineered stone in their own facilities, thereby eliminating one full step in the product's route to market. Some even hope to fabricate engineered stone for other fabricators, and not get involved in installation at all.
However it all shakes out, I view embracing engineered stone and all it offers as a positive step forward for the solid surface industry. Not only will it encourage innovation, but the technology lessons fabricators must learn to master engineered stone fabrication will most certainly cross over into solid surface fabrication as well. That means that kitchen and bath dealers of the future will be able to deal with fabricators who can provide most, if not all, of their surfacing options in a quality-centered, production format. And that implies higher quality at favorable prices.
At present, there are just a handful of engineered stone suppliers. The major players include DuPont's Zodiaq, Formica/Schock's Cristalite, Cosentino USA's Silestone, and Cesarstone. Undoubtedly, that list will grow. Just as probable, you can look for the range of color and texture offerings to increase dramatically as consumer awareness rises and demand increases. And look for your solid surface fabricator to be in the middle of it all.
Russ Lee is editor of SolidSurface magazine, a bi-monthly sister magazine of Kitchen & Bath Design News aimed at solid surface fabricators. Lee, a former fabricator himself, is a regular contributor to K&BDN.