Featured Articles, Sustainability

Shifting Times Means Shifting Mindsets

By Jessica McNaughton and Paul “Max” Le Pera

Surface fabrication is a dynamic business; it’s often managed on the day-to-day and putting out fires is the name of the game. While necessary, the cost comes at neglecting to focus on factors that may impact the business in the long term. As 2023 shapes up to be another challenging year in this industry, position your business for success by understanding industry shifts in marketing, information technology and sustainability — specifically those affecting the countertop markets within the enterprise chain: fabricators, distributors and manufacturers.

For example, the last few years have seen a massive shift in how your customers do research and procure information. Foot traffic has become a fast-paced, fact-finding mission executed on a keyboard. Information is at everyone’s fingertips and decisions are made in increasingly shorter time frames.

Your fabrication business’s online presence matters more now than ever before. With this comes easier discoverability, cheaper and more navigable marketing tools, and a shift from cluttered gluts of information in the form of manuals, guides and specifications, to online tools that provide the latest information in real time.

With online inventory tools, artificial intelligence chat solutions, online sampling and product databases becoming the new norm in research and discoverability, we see this shift integral to more modern sustainable practices. Unfamiliar product names will begin to cross your desk in specifications and you will need to figure out what it is, where to get it and how you cut it. Buffer yourself from slowdowns by getting ahead of these trends.

Understand that information is coming from platforms, not people. Data and sample fulfillment are rapidly migrating online, which means that virtual document and sample libraries are allowing customers to determine what product they want based on selection criteria. Fabricators will have informed customers who have chosen products based on what mattered to them versus what they are told by a salesperson. Being open to these new channels is imperative for fabricators to be successful as they are going to be an increasingly growing source of customers.

Material Bank, an online sample platform founded by the Sandow Group, parent company of Interior Design Magazine, is a consolidated physical library of samples for over 450 brands. Picture a massive warehouse filled with samples, which can be accessed online by tens of thousands of designers and architects to procure samples immediately. This service is extremely valuable to the specifiers who are choosing materials, and it is free to them! (The cost is shared among the manufacturers, who pay to have their products hosted on the platform.) This means that more specifications will occur online. Choices will be made, for example, by using filter logic on things like color, price or recycled content.

This is a game-changer for fabricators. The way many designers are choosing materials has shifted to online, including how they vet materials. The fabricator now can often be the first point of in-person contact on the project. It appears that the traditional function of a product representative will require some adaptation, quite possibly into a greater focus on territory management versus sampling. Other sample platforms include Swatchbox and Source.

In addition, there is a proliferation of databases that are aggregating product information. All the performance data are broken out into individual fields and hosted online in a searchable database that allows designers to see what products meet their needs. It also means a lot of product research is being done before the specification comes through. This is not just a commercial play; the same migration of data online is accessible to consumers too, who will be much savvier when they arrive to talk about their selections. Some examples of online data aggregation platforms are Mindful Materials, ecomedes and Sustainable Minds.

Along the same lines, new technology is increasing throughput and efficiency in material development. Quartz has evolved to the point where the major innovations have been in the colors and patterns offered. There is some significant innovation in quartz unfolding as bio-based resins are developed, and companies like Breton continue to market these innovations to slab manufacturers. Cosentino has created a line of silica-free quartz; the minerals used to create the material are made in a lab. Other silica-free raw materials are being researched and developed to include mineral ores that come from post-industrial uses, affording the finished product color nuances, virtually silica-free material, and in some instances, performance enhancers.

Sintered stone is actively addressing one of the biggest objections to the category: the throughput and fabrication time. Dekton recently announced a new formulation that allows its slabs to be cut more quickly and efficiently. Similarly, Lapitec has announced the new Veloce blade (see page 48), which can cut sintered slabs three times more quickly than a traditional blade. More blade innovations are coming as this is the perfect response to what is a major bottleneck for fabricators: enabling them to embrace the sintered category.

And finally, disclosure requirements are not going away. We are used to fabricators requiring a Safety Data Sheet for anything cut in their facility. But even before the customer is getting to the fabricator, they are requiring things like Health Product Declarations and Environmental Product Declarations. As these become more commonplace, fabricators must be aware these documents exist and what they contain.

Adaptation is the key to both survival and proliferation. Information access, dissemination and accuracy are rapidly evolving. Awareness of these evolutions will necessitate strategic adoption in one way or another. Stay ahead of the game by paying attention to consumer information trends and sustainable advancements. “Busy-ness” is not business. How fabricators adjust functions and priorities to better focus on adaptation will play a major role in their companies’ sustainability and success.

About the Authors

Jessica McNaughton serves as president at CaraGreen, a provider of sustainable building materials, including many alternative surfacing materials. She has 20 years’ experience in sales, marketing, business development and strategy. Previously the director of sales and marketing at CaraGreen, Jessica has maintained her status as a LEED Accredited Professional since 2009 and she hosts a podcast, Build Green Live Green. She can be reached at jessica@caragreen.com.

Paul “Max” Le Pera is the president and founder of Proprietary Ventures, LLC, a boutique-style global firm devoted to researching, discovering and deploying disruptive and sustainably oriented proprietary products and technologies. He serves on the ISFA board of directors as vice president of standards. He can be reached at paul.l@proprietaryventures.com.

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