Is CNC Equipment Practical for a One-Man Shop?

      A long and thorough analysis of the value of an investment in CNC equipment for the small shop, this thread should be read by anyone considering the upgrade to CNC. August 23, 2006

Question
Presently I am a one man shop, building medium to high end frameless cabinets. My question is this: Is it better to grow my business/capacity by hiring skilled employees or buying a CNC? Having been a plant/production manager for 100 plus employees in a woodworking firm in the past, I know all the pitfalls of having employees and would like keep them to a minimum. What is the best CNC for under $50,000? Under $100,000? Are any of you one man shops out there running a CNC?

Forum Responses
(CNC Forum)
From contributor B:
We are a somewhat larger shop but from my experience (8 years of CNC router) I think using a router to produce parts for frameless using good nesting software is a winner no matter what size the shop. Well, maybe not true for big production shops with feed thru machines. Go to IWF and look at all of them, kick the tires, see how they are made. The software is at least as important as the router. Material handling and layout of the process for best handling of everything is right up there too. A vacuum lift and jib crane is a great investment for handling full sheets onto the router.



From contributor C:
There are several very successful high end cabinetmakers building frameless cabinets with the new Alpha Cabinet system. Software wise it's KCDW to KCDw CNC link to ArtCamís new Cabinetmaker software. It's an assemble-it-yourself kit, but it will nest parts and people are using it for that now. They use a 5 hp spindle and an air drill for the 5mm hole, includes vacuum holdown system, etc. ShopBot backs up its machine with 24/7 support, and ships parts fast. It's not a heavy machine but it will work well in a one man shop. Resale is fast and high, so if youíre going to upgrade to a bigger industrial machine you could sell your ShopBot in a heartbeat. I have an older ShopBot, and get great support from the factory. They don't care if you have a old beater you bought used or a new one - they treat you the same, with great service.


From contributor D:
I'm a one and a half man shop. I've had a ShopBot for two and a half years now, and it is the best investment Iíve made. I can't give you pros or cons on other machines, as I've had experience with a router master and Komo only. Komo was nice but cost twice as much as my house. The ShopBot cost less than my truck and was paid for in the first year.


From contributor E:
I don't think you can maintain as a one man shop in any case, but a CNC will allow you to magnify how much, and how well you produce with less skilled help. I knew one guy who was producing an enormous amount of cabinets by himself with some part time help, with a beam saw, point to point, and edgebander, but he was locked in to 70+ hours a week. If you're by yourself, any meeting or out of shop task stops production. I have found that there are people out there with metal working CNC experience who can run the machine if the programs are good. And assembly is pretty fool proof with either dowels or dados.

There are lots of used CNCs out there for less than $100,000. I think that Komo, or anyone, will sell you training and support for a used machine. I think youíre better off investing your time and effort into developing a CAD/CAM system, rather than training and supporting employees, but you will probably need at least a couple of employees.



From contributor F:
I have a small shop. I have a Techno LC series CNC. In less than an hour we programmed and cut out all the casework for a 45 degree corner entertainment center with all dados, shelves, backs, etc. All we have to do one this one is to construct the face frames, assemble and finish. To do this on traditional equipment would take hours longer. Just setting up the 45s and the dados would be hours. Not having a CNC is like not having a tablesaw 50 years ago. It opens up so many doors for a one man shop. Yes it's expensive. Mine was in the 35K range with vacuum table and all software. You can do things that will cut down your initial investment. Different CNC companies have different options. Given the options of paying a 35K payroll or getting a CNC, go with the CNC. They don't call in sick, and you donít have to pay taxes. And they don't claim unemployment or workers comp.

Go to IWF and shop all the different CNC makers. At the time I went with Techno LC because I felt they had the best bang for the buck. I won't knock ShopBot. Seems like a good machine. I thought loading and unloading would be difficult with the rails they have. I also didn't want to assemble it. But ShopBot owners say they really know all about their CNC since they did the assembly.



From contributor G:
In my opinion the ShopBot is slow. Your best bet is a Holz-Her or a Busellato for speed and growth. The faster you can process parts, the more increase in volume. Get software that will do your cut list and layouts. Buy out reports and link to your CNC. One click and youíre running. Next is nested base versus point 2 point panel processing pros and cons. A one man shop can produce a lot with the right equipment and software.


From contributor F:
I disagree that a ShopBot is too slow. You will cut each panel out in a few minutes, and then you stack them in a pile until you get time to finish the job. The faster the machine, the faster you can build a pile that you don't have time to work on. What I do is set up a cut and start the machine. Then I go back to something else. The machine cuts off. I continue doing something else. When I get to a stopping point, I clean the CNC, then start another cut, then go back to something else. If it is a less than 5 minute cut, I sweep or sand or do something I can drop as soon as the machine cuts off.

If I had spent lots more money on a CNC it would just sit idle longer until I got back to it. The bottle neck in the shop will be you, not the CNC. Any CNC I can think of will cut fast enough. Like cars, speed costs money. Once you get a machine and get up and running, then you get parts off and work coming in fast enough, you start to hire some employees to help assemble. Once you have enough work to keep a few employees busy and the CNC is running most of the time, you can start looking for more speed.

Now if you have an extra $80,000 bucks to layout, then you might want to go ahead and buy the speed. I didn't. For the money I spent, I keep a full time, a full to part time and a part time person busy. I donít have much bench time. And my router cuts out 3,000 to 5,000 parts a month. The bottleneck is still the employees. My ROI was quicker than I expected. As a new shop you have lots of things to spend money on. Spend wisely. If you need an 18 foot box truck for deliveries, donít go out and buy a semi.



From contributor H:
I also can vouch for the ShopBot not being a speed problem. We cut at 600 IPM if we need too. We have 5 people here and I cut for outside shops as well. We are now running two ShopBots in fact. The ROI is just too good. While I would love a $100,000+ machine I can't, as a businessman, justify it yet. I can get 40,000 parts a year out of one, do you need more?

Also I can fix anything on the machine myself without a factory tech and their support has been excellent - seven days a week if I need it. I'd say define very carefully what you need from the machine and then hit the floor at the IWF. When you decide on a machine ask for a list of owners and then talk to them. Also look even harder at the software, that's half the operation and make sure it will actually do what you need it to do.



From contributor G:
I started as a one man shop and the right equipment and software will make you grow without having all the overhead of additional people. You want to do all of your machining in one set up: Dado, line bore, pilot holes for hinges, drawer runners, dowel holes, shapes - to edgebander, and assemble with speed. Spend more time selling, getting approvals and organizing. What good is a stack of parts than you can cut on a table saw?


From contributor F:
I see your point. If you shop produces mostly frameless, edgebanded parts that are melamine, prefinished or laminated, I agree with you. In that case, a faster machine would be better if you can assemble parts close to as fast as the CNC cuts them.
Now that I go back, I see the original questioner is building frameless as well. If he outsourced the doors and drawers, and used a lot of prefinished sheet goods, maybe, just maybeÖ


From contributor H:
To contributor G: I do all of that on my machine and the software I have and go straight to edgeband from the machine. I don't do kitchen cabs but have a specialized line of furniture we do here. You can equip a ShopBot with an airdrill and a toolchanger these days. They are not the machine people saw even three years ago.


From contributor G:
Itís like dial up versus broadband, you get what you pay for. If you look how much it cost for 1 worker( 50K+) by the time you add pay, taxes, Workers Comp, health insurance, vacation, etc. The CNC offsets adding help and with the software you donít have to add office help. You get the cost right back and its tax write-off. Your volume goes up Ė itís a win-win situation.


From contributor J:
I already know about the ShopBot air drill. What can you tell me about the tool changer? I didn't see it on their website. Is it a second Z-axis? Or, a real tool changer with many tools?


From contributor K:
Better to buy a used machine with a tool changer. Until you have a machine with a tool changer, you will not realize how much time is wasted on changing tools.


From contributor H:
ShopBot does offer a tool changer. I think it is utilizing an HSD spindle these days and runs ten tools. If it's not on their website then a call to the office will put you with the people who can tell you all about it! I do agree that you get what you pay for I've just seen several shops go under because they over bought on CNC and couldn't make the payments. You have to think about how much you realistically need as opposed to what you would like to have. It can mean more money in your pocket at the end of the year.


From contributor C:
A few of shops that I've visited are simply amazing. All three on the Oregon Coast, one has a ShopBot (an older, slower one like mine) and one that has a very pricey PTP Beamsaw setup and another has a Pricey CNC Router but used to have a ShopBot (the one that is now mine). All of them do very well, much better than a well set up non-CNC shop.

The shop that has the slower PRT ShopBot uses his machine as a PTP for panel processing for Frameless Cabinets, and with standard woodworking tools pulls off some amazing cabinetry. Success in a one man shop with CNC low cost or high cost works well indeed. The two with the $100,000+ machines just plain kick butt. Maybe you need to go out and visit a few shops and see for yourself. Ten years from now most Cabinet shops will have a CNC as standard equipment.



From contributor N:
I would like to weigh in on this. I am/was a one man shop with a newly hired trainee and I bought a Bussellato CNC last December. After many years in the business world, I, as you, have found labor to be very expensive and unpredictable. To that point, I focused on building a system to which my cabinets were built, that I could teach to someone with little or no skill and they would not have to think beyond their next potty break. I knew that CNC was the only way to increase capacity and versatility in the absence of a skilled labor pool. To wit, I invested in the machines and software to implement such a system. My CNC does not run nearly enough, nor does my edgebander or my sliding saw. But I have the capacity to take on jobs to $80K without fear or doubts about producing.

Point in fact, I can program and run a mushroom shaped counter pass thru ready for lamination in less than 10 minutes. It takes that long just to draw it and it is perfectly symmetrical. I can edgeband in forty minutes what it took two days to do by hand.

Is CNC expensive? Yes. Mine cost less than $70K with 8 position tool changer and software delivered and installed. Adequate dust collection and tooling added about $10K to that. It still costs about half what a trainee costs per month and doesn't need potty breaks or cell phone conversations every 30 minutes.

Do you want to produce as efficiently as possible or are you content to create jobs for lower skilled persons? CNC is the least grief you will ever enjoy. Is there a learning curve? Yes. Is it as long as some would lead you to believe? Not at all. Think long and hard about the versatility of a P2P with router rather than a nested router.



From contributor O:
I don't know if I am as confident as I used to be that small kitchen shops had no real use for CNC equipment. I'm not convinced about it, but I allow for the possibility, particularly for one man shops. It's been a long time since I've been a one man shop and I applaud anything that can take some of the mule labor out of it. I'm not so sure, however, that you aren't just trading one kind of mule labor for another.

For a guy like contributor A, where every job is a weird one, I think CNC is the way to go. For a shop that just does two or three kitchens a month I don't think it makes sense. Indeed, I think a shop doing two kitchens a week would be better off using that money to fix another problem in their business. It all comes down to opportunity cost - what else you could do with the money? I suspect that if you are doing ten kitchens a month and every one is different, you probably have a marketing problem. You might be better off investing the money in sales tools that will help you standardize your offering. The major advantage to fixing this problem at the revenue side is that it also creates more revenue.

If you think you can really justify the output of this machine, you might pause long enough to pick up the phone and find out how much it costs to have the parts cut to size and drilled. If your justification is labor saving, this might really get the job done. It would probably have a pretty good ROI also.

The argument that CNC mitigates unskilled labor is self defeating. You can't find smart people so you get a machine and hire not-smart people. Now you've got a business model where you have to surround yourself with dumb people because you're not going to find a smart one that is willing to sit there and stare at MDF blanks being machined all day long. The goal here isn't to build kitchens - it's to build dollars. I'm sure that the guys who have CNC can build more boxes but the real test is whether you have more money or more time off. If this is true, I would say get the CNC machine. I'd be suspicious of most people in this industry who give you business advice. A real businessman would own a laundromat. If you want to test this theory, ask anybody who owns a CNC machine if they could tell you what it would cost to outsource this work.



From contributor A:
To contributor O: I think a CNC is would be a positive addition to your shop! Now I know that statement is going to make you shudder, but I genuinely feel there is a strong profitability potential for almost any shop that goes CNC, given the right person involved (note I said "person", not "machine").

The real balance to profitability though goes to the size of the investment. I've seen a lot of machines running at shows and plenty running in shops. I've yet to see a solid reason for the small (typically less than 5 man) shop to spend more then $30k to $40k on a machine. The larger, heavier more expensive machines are spectacular contraptions no doubt, but those in the class one step down will do the job just as fast, just as accurately and just as efficiently. Plus, they are easier to learn to operate and less costly to maintain. It's a hell of a lot easier to see a $35k investment sitting idle 50-70% of the time than a $100k investment and the associated monthly payment. And even if someone feels he needs to step this up to $75k for the machine purchase (increased hold down or tool changing capabilities), as long as heís thoroughly studied his business plan, he should be able to come out ahead of the curve.

Almost anyone with a CNC will tell you that it increased production by at least 25%, and some much greater then that. And many of those people only use their CNCs for a few hours a day a few times a week. I think for the most part though that you'll find people saying this didn't spend $150k or more on their machines. My first CNC was a used $12,000 setup (including software) and once I got the system integrated into my overall operation over the first 3 months it easily paid for itself over the next 3 months just in the increased productivity. That was 3 months to bring it up to full productivity though, not to take advantage of its capabilities. We were cutting parts with it faster than we did with our old methods in the first few days.

I think the key to success with a CNC router is the people who will be using it, whether an employee or a one man shop operator. Computer and mechanical abilities go a long way here to ease the integration of the machine into the shop. Those skills alone can be a big advantage in making the investment pay off, but if you can add a creative mind to the equation then the possibilities of what the machine can do become seemingly endless. I used to feel the shaper was the heart and soul of a wood shop because of its tremendous versatility. In my mind our CNC router has replaced the shaper as the center of production.



From contributor E:
I'm wondering how many of you think a one man, one helper is the right size business model. Personally, my goal, though it seems very distant, is to setup all of the processes to where I don't have to participate. I started out thinking that if I had one good person, woodworker or not, I could train him/her on the use of CAD/CAM, etc. and be able to produce efficiently. I'm now up to 9 people, trying to manage all of the peripheral stuff like material sorting and handling, assembly, sanding, more sanding, delivery, clean up, and more sanding. I think the critical mass is around 6 to 10 people, in which case a ShopBot would not keep up. But a more efficient, smaller crew would be more profitable. But smaller and more efficient means more skill, which is hard to come by.


From contributor O:
To contributor A: It took me a long time to start using clip-on hinges because to me they were solving a problem that didn't exist. As it turns out, of course, I wish I had of done this sooner. This experience was not lost on me. Just because I have much conviction in my ideas does not mean I am right.

Several of my peers in Seattle have been advocating that I embrace CNC technology. It would not surprise me if that should one day happen but it wouldn't surprise me if it didn't. Let me explain my ambivalence. All the reasons in favor of this technology are widely apparent. This forum has no shortage of really smart people that support the idea. For sake of argument I will represent the other side.

ARGUMENT 1: It solves problems that don't exist, (and at the same time creates new problems). As I understand these machines, they are really good at producing boxes and only marginally good at producing other things. Boxes are the easiest part of my job. The effort to get a box built probably represents 10% of my costs to build a kitchen. Since production only represents half the costs of running my whole company we can express the box part (on a good day) as being 5% of the big picture.

ARGUMENT 2: While CNC does fix some problems, it tends to create others.
The sheer number of places something can crash is one. Try perusing all of the threads on the CNC forum sometime and ask yourself how good your gear-head skills are. If I get into CNC, I will recruit my way out of this problem.

ARGUMENT 3: Limited mental capital (mine). The major-domo in most of these shops tends to be the proprietor. To be able to master the machine takes a big commitment of this mental capital. Asking this guy to also become stellar in CNC means something else will have to suffer. I sell cabinets for about $800 a box. We don't deliver them, install them or finish them. I've never held a spray gun in my hand. It's the same reason I don't do my own auto-mechanics. If I had learned to spray, I would have spent my week-ends in a spray booth.

Instead of mastering CNC, I put these hours into learning database theory. Having a CNC machine in my shop would not differentiate me. The database management will. (Notice that I give myself the option of considering CNC via somebody else's skill set)

ARGUMENT 4: Opportunity Cost.
All capital flows to opportunity. Eventually this capital will saturate all the alternatives and CNC will finally peek its little head out of the pond. Over the years I have been very consistent about investing in my company. With the exception of the 18 month cycle right after the dot-com bust (when I nearly went out of business) I have been regularly upgrading something in my business to the tune of at least one man's wages each month. Sometimes I would invest more. My shop now is really well set up to build what I sell.
One of the best things I ever bought was a used Sintex 4 side planer. This baby was making me money on the first day it came in. This machine was solving problems that did exist and it didn't take any (bottleneck) mental capital to get it up and running. If you ask my guys, the best things before that were three scissor-lift workbenches. Another great one is my Castle pocket drill. If you notice a common thread here, it is the plug and play component. All investments take time and money and I tend to favor the ones that just take money. A great one to start with is 10 electric pencil sharpeners. The next thing you know there will be little pods showing up all over the shop. You'll never have to walk to get or put away a glue bottle.

ARGUMENT 5: The economy. Most of the young guys on these forums have never seen a day in their life but what they could not improve on their circumstances. I would say that many of them do not actually read the business section in the newspaper. Our economy has never seen the levels of debt we struggle under today. Deficit spending is not sustainable. Eventually this chicken will come home to roost. A big question these days is the housing bubble. Housing related expenditures are what drives the domestic economy. Most of my friends make their mortgage payment by doing something for somebody else's house. If they buy a truck it's out of the revenue from working on somebody else's house.

The first time some guy in Seattle gets transferred to Boston and can't find a buyer to assume his $600,000 mortgage he is going to have to sell that house for a loss. On that day you will see all $600K houses drop in value. When people start to lose confidence in their house they stop buying kitchens and we stop buying trucks. The best thing I can do with limited capital is try to solve as many production problems I can at the sales side. The booby prize here is that it not only makes me more money now but it makes me stronger later. If the economy is booming I get to raise my prices. If the economy gets tough I have more customers. If I want to sell the business, somebody else can buy those customers from me.

ARGUMENT 6: Opportunity cost: Again. Have you ever noticed how a dog will forage for his existence? He'll walk down an alley and if he is lucky, find a hamburger but oatmeal or a breadcrust will work just fine. A farmer, on the other hand, plants seeds. So long as nothing really bad happens it is reasonable for him to expect to see some sprouts a few weeks later and harvest time is usually pretty easy to predict from there. Woodworkers are like that dog. We wait for someone to call. This week it's white oak and next week paintgrade. We're so eager to please we will even do some formica if they'll give us a chance to bid on the next good one.

Putting money into machinery when you don't have money in a marketing program seems kind of like putting the cart before the horse. Inasmuch as the customer could care less whether you sprinkle pixie dust on the wood to make a cabinet, I would start first with finding the customers.



From contributor C:
Spending $16,000 on a ShopBot isn't going to break the bank, Add another $5,000 for a vacuum hold down system and your ready to cut 4 x 8 panels, drill system holes, rout grooves, etc. Unlike the housing market, these machines have a very high resale value. Now a $100,000 machine needs a real soul searching evaluation of your business, and a shop that's already fine tuned like yours to begin with. I believe a one man shop today can justify a lower cost CNC like a ShopBot or a Techno. For a more expensive machine that's a leap to a much different scenario. That's where your point of view is very well stated.


From contributor J:
To contributor O: Good response - a lot of very good points. I would like to share one thought that counters one of your points. You stated that it is solving a problem that doesn't exist. Have you ever done any curved work? How long does it take to set up to do a new radius for that valance, or those curved shelves on the curved end of a peninsula? Or how about a pediment with a semi-circle cut in the top?

Could you add more curved work to your offerings and make more profit? Moreover, could this differentiate you from your competition? My ShopBot can cut that curved valance in a minute or two. And, it probably took less than 15 minutes to draw the piece in CAD, generate a toolpath, and set the piece in place. And, I am slow. That pediment took a few minutes longer to design because I wasn't sure of the look that I wanted. Once I drew it on the computer, I was able to see the ratio of height to width, adjust accordingly, add the semi-circle, generate the toolpath, then cut - all in about 15 minutes. And, I needed two identical pieces. No problem. Cut and paste on the computer. I cut both pieces out of a single sheet of plywood in minutes. And, they were a perfect match.

Also, doing stopped flutes is a breeze. There is even software that comes with the ShopBot OS that handles the flute programming for you. Select a couple of quick parameters on the screen and cut those flutes. Of course, you will have to insert the proper router bit and set the height. But this usually takes me less than 5 minutes total.
I know of another one man shop that only uses his ShopBot for specialty cuts. He continues to use his sliding table saw and line boring machine to make frameless boxes. His current special project is to use the CNC router to cut curved crown moulding.



From contributor A:
To contributor O: That type of thorough analysis and explanation is why I always enjoy your posts. The only thing I reacted to as I read it was your statement that "As I understand these machines, they are really good at producing boxes and only marginally good at producing other things." A lot of your argument further on is then based upon that statement. I think if you look at the close up details of a CNC's capabilities you'll find that they are not "only marginally good at producing other things". As you so kindly implied, I make my living at producing "other things" and so have a good idea of how profitably this can be done. A CNC is not limited to cutting perimeters and drilling holes. For example, with my 3D software I have profitably produced very complex one piece components that could have only been hand carved or piecemeal assembled out of components made on other machines.

I would think that if you looked closely at your processing operations beyond the basic box making operation you would probably find things that a CNC could do for you. That being said I certainly don't profess that a CNC router is a necessary addition to every shop. It's hard to argue against the clearly stated reasoning you have presented.



From contributor P:
To contributor O: ďARGUMENT 1: It solves problems that don't exist, (and at the same time creates new problems). As I understand these machines, they are really good at producing boxes and only marginally good at producing other things. Boxes are the easiest part of my job. The effort to get a box built probably represents 10% of my costs to build a kitchen. Since production only represents half the costs of running my whole company we can express the box part (on a good day) as being 5% of the big picture.Ē

That is backwards - they are marginally good at manufacturing boxes and are really good at other things. They are easy to use and require very little training. A lot of guys look at how much it can save them on production but CNC really pays off on the other things.

ďARGUMENT 2: While CNC does fix some problems, it tends to create others.
The sheer number of places something can crash is one. Try perusing all of the threads on the CNC forum sometime and ask yourself how good your gear-head skills are. If I get into CNC, I will recruit my way out of this problem.Ē

Not true - they are easy to use; occasionally they do crash but that is rare and the crash is a lot less dangerous than a crash on a saw.

ďARGUMENT 3: Limited mental capital (mine). The major-domo in most of these shops tends to be the proprietor. To be able to master the machine takes a big commitment of this mental capital. Asking this guy to also become stellar in CNC means something else will have to suffer. I sell cabinets for about $800 a box. We don't deliver them, install them or finish them. I've never held a spray gun in my hand. It's the same reason I don't do my own auto-mechanics. If I had learned to spray, I would have been spent my week-ends in a spray booth.

Instead of mastering CNC, I put these hours into learning database theory. Having a CNC machine in my shop would not differentiate me. The database management will. (Notice that I give myself the option of considering CNC via somebody else's skill set)Ē

Not true, although you will have to use software, that should be the case anyway and the CNC portion of it is not that big a deal. Bottom line - with CNC you should end up with more control, i.e. more time - not less. Mastering a data base - that sounds kind of like ďI can make my own widget to build this product.Ē It is usually an endless project that is never done or quite right. I used to do my bookkeeping on a spreadsheet. Although I learned a lot about Lotus I sure like using QuickBooks today. I also got into having the program written for me. Been there done that. The logic in this is highly questionable.

ďARGUMENT 4: Opportunity Cost.
All capital flows to opportunity. Eventually this capital will saturate all the alternatives and CNC will finally peek its little head out of the pond. Over the years I have been very consistent about investing in my company. With the exception of the 18 month cycle right after the dot-com bust (when I nearly went out of business) I have been regularly upgrading something in my business to the tune of at least one man's wages each month. Sometimes I would invest more. My shop now is really well set up to build what I sell.
One of the best things I ever bought was a used Sintex 4 side planer. This baby was making me money on the first day it came in. This machine was solving problems that did exist and it didn't take any (bottleneck) mental capital to get it up and running. If you ask my guys, the best things before that were three scissorlift workbenches. Another great one is my Castle pocket drill. If you notice a common thread here, it is the plug and play component. All investments take time and money and I tend to favor the ones that just take money. A great one to start with is 10 electric pencil sharpeners. The next thing you know there will be little pods show up all over the shop. You'll never have to walk to get or put away a glue bottle.Ē

You overestimate the amount of time required to setup CNC. When I first got a router I spent a day with the operator who had no CNC experience and he was on his own.

ďARGUMENT 5: The economy. Most of the young guys on these forums have never seen a day in their life but what they could not improve on their circumstances. I would say that many of them do not actually read the business section in the newspaper. Our economy has never seen the levels of debt we struggle under today. Deficit spending is not sustainable. Eventually this chicken will come home to roost. A big question these days is the housing bubble. Housing related expenditures are what drive the domestic economy. Most of my friends make their mortgage payment by doing something for somebody else's house. If they buy a truck it's out of the revenue from working on somebody else's house.

The first time some guy in Seattle gets transferred to Boston and can't find a buyer to assume his $600,000 mortgage he is going to have to sell that house for a loss. On that day you will see all $600K houses drop in value. When people start to lose confidence in their house they stop buying kitchens and we stop buying trucks.

The best thing I can do with limited capital is try to solve as many production problems I can at the sales side. The booby prize here is that it not only makes me more money now but it makes me stronger later. If the economy is booming I get to raise my prices. If the economy gets tough I have more customers. If I want to sell the business, somebody else can buy those customers from me.Ē

Yes - the same thing happened to me and one thing that saved us was that I started making interior doors for an importer of doors from Asia. We did the customs for him. There is no way I would have considered all the radius work involved without CNC. Another thing that saved us is that we had a customer who loves elliptical cabinets for the medical market again no way I would considered it without CNC. Diversity is harder to master I suppose, however easier to market. But with CNC it is not as hard.

ďARGUMENT 6: Opportunity cost: Again.
Have you ever noticed how a dog will forage for his existence? He'll walk down an alley and if he is lucky, find a hamburger but oatmeal or a a breadcrust will work just fine. A farmer, on the other hand, plants seeds. So long as nothing really bad happens it is reasonable for him to expect to see some sprouts a few weeks later and harvest time is usually pretty easy to predict from there. Woodworkers are like that dog. We wait for someone to call. This week it's white oak and next week paintgrade. We're so eager to please we will even do some formica if they'll give us a chance to bid on the next good one. Putting money into machinery when you don't have money in a marketing program seems kind of like putting the cart before the horse. Inasmuch as the customer could care less whether you sprinkle pixie dust on the wood to make a cabinet, I would start first with finding the customers. There are, however, exceptions to this generalization. I'm sure I am going to get into this CNC stuff eventually. I just have to make sure it's not a fad.Ē

I couldnít agree more. Your connection with the right people trumps the rest. But the marketing plan would include the type of machinery you would buy. A couple of other thoughts - I was talking to my carbide guy; while we were talking he was running 3 machines. This was all custom stuff. My point is that multitasking is something to consider regarding your study of this subject. Everything you said boils down to ďhow do I get more control of my business?Ē

Regarding the marketing, I would say diversity, as per your dog analogy. That way you can control your sales. Not to say all things to all people but different markets. The farmer analogy is not lost on me either but if there is an earlier frost or record harvest either way the farmer loses. Maybe planting a diversity of seeds is a good option? Admittedly this applies more to the commercial market.

If you can get into the high end of the market it does seem to be more recession resistant but not proof. As far as getting more work done with less skilled labor - with imports coming in (I have lost one off retail stores to China) timeliness becomes more important.
All of this adds up to more control, not less.



From contributor A:
To the original questioner: This is a really great discussion you have generated with your question. What do you think of some of these responses?


From contributor Q:
CNC for a one man shop? Become a one and half or two man shop and make sure the money is there and you aren't supporting your help. Focus on your product(s) and see if the CNC fits. My recommendation is that you address the saw to bander problem first if you band and then mill. If you can't band from the saw with a square part and then mill, a CNC that goes down on you for the day will kill you. Do you need a CNC or point to point? I went to the P2P and bander at the same time and quadrupled my output but when the P2P went down it was a mess and it was only a few months old.

The best part of my point to point was the on board software to process with the router, saw, boring and the tool changer. This allowed us to process immediately after the install. The best piece of advice I got for the one man shop was to purchase software and get it in place and then decide on the machine(s). Some people forget that some CNCs take some software from the office via a bridge and that can be very expensive. I agree with the can of worms of tooling, dust, panel lifting, etc. but a good machine rep will listen and address all the worms and be there in pinch. I agree with the little as cash out on machinery as possible, but within reason. You need to produce for a P2P, CNC, bander, etc. to pay for themselves, but they pay back quickly. ROI with the right equipment is awesome, but the wrong equipment investment is hell and you will be stuck.



From the original questioner:
The wealth of knowledge and insight that I have gained from this thread is invaluable! Thanks to everyone who has contributed. At this point I am leaning towards purchasing a ShopBot or like machine. It would give me an immediate boost in production capacity without breaking the bank and allow me to do prototype work on some product ideas I have.

As I grow I plan to bring in help from a labor service. Those who show that they want to be there and have the aptitude for woodworking will be at the top of the list as permanent hires. Those who have to be re-trained after each bathroom break will be gotten rid of with a simple phone call to the service. Most of the thinking will be done by me and my CNC. At least thatís the plan for now. Thanks again to everyone.



From contributor O:
To the original questioner: I think this thread was very thought-provoking as well. It has probably caused more change in my thinking than most of the other discussions I have seen on this topic. I think some of you guys thrashed my contentions very well. I think contributors Pís and J's arguments about versatility were very well put. I hadn't considered contributor Pís comment about multi-tasking till right now. Many of you talked about the slowness of small machines not being a handicap. If I close my eyes I can see the operator putting drawer slides on the first cabinet while the second cabinet is being processed on the CNC.

The comment I made about CNC machines being only marginally good at producing other things was incorrectly stated. They are probably the very best solution for esoteric projects. What I meant to say was that they weren't so good at doing the other things I typically do to produce a set of kitchen cabinets. Contributors P and J did, however, make a good case for what these "other things" can do to help you differentiate yourself in the marketplace.

I think there were very strong arguments made for payback on the small machines. The thing for me now is to figure out how to put this into context of a lean manufacturing company. I'm thinking now of the spatial relationships between work stations. It doesn't do any good to fix a problem in one spot if you just create a problem in another. Non-value-added transportation is just another waste.

I have worked hard to make product flow from one station to the next. My ultimate goal is to eliminate all carts and make the outfeed of one station become the infeed for another. Right now I buy pre-finished maple plywood ripped to 24 inches and banded one long side. It costs me $2.80 to have the ripping and banding done. I furnish the PVC but I could never produce the labor for that kind of money. I have a small Brandt bander but you have to throw chicken bones over your left shoulder and light some incense each time you run it. My hunch is that starting with pre-banded sheetgoods is going to be hard to improve on.

Are there any small CNC machines that can process rips such as this without tearing up the PVC? Some of you guys have been promoting ShopBot as being able to accomplish this. I am looking for a solution that does not require any tool changing by the operator, i.e. something that has the capacity to pick up and swing a left and/or right hand bit for entering the PVC. I am also looking for something with a relatively short ROI payback. My probable output is about a kitchen (25 boxes) a week. Most of this will be face frame work though I may develop a frameless product as well. This initiative is still not my next project.

As I stated before, my need now is to develop and implement a marketing program. Right now my business is 70% referral and 30% sidewalk sales. I would like to reverse those ratios. I figure if I can develop a program that is based on marketing rather than reputation, my company might be worth something to somebody else. I might even be able to recruit a protege to take over where I left off.



From contributor J:
To contributor O: I have a question. You stated:
"As I stated before, my need now is to develop and implement a marketing program. Right now my business is 70% referral and 30% sidewalk sales. I would like to reverse those ratios. I figure if I can develop a program that is based on marketing rather than reputation, my company might be worth something to somebody else. I might even be able to recruit a protege to take over where I left off."

Why would you want to reverse the ratio?? You gave an explanation, but I don't follow it. Isn't reputation part of marketing? If your company is getting referrals (for free), then why would you want to spend money on a marketing program? Your referrals are already coming in the door knowing that they probably want your product and services. What's not to like? What am I not understanding?



From contributor R:
One of the big advantages I foresee in our shop's transition to CNC is flexibility. It will allow us to offer customers a highly customizable product for a very reasonable cost. In the world of frameless, the 32mm system is gradually becoming irrelevant. The Blum hinge plates we use now don't fit on a 32mm grid. Some of the other hardware we incorporate also does not fit the 32mm system holes. Why drill holes in the cabinet you're not going to use? Why be limited to placing drawer slides in 32mm intervals? Or shelves?

With a CNC router you can put holes exactly where you want them, and fast. Add to that the capability to do curved and custom work with great precision, and the economy of eliminating other vertical boring equipment, and the reduced material handling, and to me it seems a no-brainer. This is no fad. CNC is a mature technology that has been around for some time. It is an extremely flexible, precise, and increasingly economical manufacturing tool.



From contributor A:
As I see it, a marketable company is one that has a volume of sales not dependant upon the current owner. For a large company, say one over $10 million in sales, that sort of scenario comes pretty naturally as the owner is largely unseen at the helm. For a small operation though the reputation is pretty much dependent upon the owner, who people perceive as being hands on with the product. If he leaves a large part of the reputation leaves with him.

However, if sales volume is high based upon one-time customers then a potential buyer is going to feel he/she should be able to maintain or increase that volume (with more advertising). If a high sales volume is the result of personal reputation though the buyer has to worry whether or not the built up loyalty will leave with the previous owner.

I didn't just know this. I had to think about it a bit after I read contributor Oís post. But it seems logical and I'd be interested to see if this is what contributor O was thinking.



From contributor O:
There are a couple of reasons we have such a high referral rate. One of them is that we try really hard to make sure the customer was glad they hired us. We operate from the assumption that our customers shouldn't need to know much about cabinets. They just need to be smart enough to hire us. On every transaction we do the best we can at the beginning to represent our interests. After we sign the contract we become their personal advocate. We don't leave a lot on the table but we always leave something. It's all about a good shopping experience.

We've all been to some stores where the clerk just seemed to really care about our problem and was very helpful and useful. Whenever this happens it's such a unique and pleasant experience that it stands out in a way that makes you notice it. It's kind of like when my wife had her sewing machine fixed. The part she talked to everyone about was the fact that they cleaned the Samsonite carrying case and it looked brand new!

The other reason is simply that we historically haven't had much extra capacity to sell to new people Sometimes it's all that we can do to service our existing customers and there is no time for new customers. This has been changing, however, with Lean. We're building a kitchen every week now and we are starting have a little extra capacity. We've actually got some time now to think about what we are selling and how we sell it. I would like to reverse these ratios so that I have a company that can out-survive me. There are certain demographics that I look for in a customer. Younger contractors will still be in business when I retire. If I sold all my work to guys my age (54) there's not going to be a customer base for the next guy that owns my business. If I aim my business at soccer moms I've got an audience that is a member of a lot of networks and is young enough to keep buying for a while.

Marketing allows me to also fix a lot of other problems, right at the source. Part of this process mandates product definition. If you can lend some definition to what you sell it gets a lot easier to build. If it gets a lot easier to build you can get good at it. If you simplify and standardize it is easier to recruit and train help. Since simple stuff is easier to build, you don't need to hire rocket scientists. Marketing is just getting out in front of the sale. If I put my money into marketing and my competition is still slugging it out with technology, there's probably going to be a little excess capacity available for rent when my production needs go up. My goal is to produce a Lean Manufacturing company that starts this process with the customer. I want to give them the tools to be Lean customers.



From contributor B:
I pretty much agree w/ Pat. We don't make kitchens but probably half of our work is the result of being able to turn out curved and complex items because of the CNC. I, as owner, rarely touch the thing nor do I do any CAD/CAM. I hire the best people I can so that when I retire there is a force that has a value without me! I still haven't mastered information control even though we have ERP, spreadsheets, databases, automated data collection/payroll etc.


From contributor S:
I just came across this interesting post and would like to make some comments and ask a couple questions. We have a well equipped 4000 sq ft shop and have already reduced the number of employees (2 now) keeping the same sales yearly volume. About 8 years ago I looked at CNC and backed off. Iím glad I did after seeing what it did to a few shops in my area. I started looking again at the Vegas show and just returned from the Stiles- Homag tour of European shops using CNC routers. I have to admit they have come a long way - they are more user friendly and can now be justified in most small and even 1 man shops with careful planning. For the most part Iíve had good luck adding new technology to the shop, but every new machine like this can also have the negative effects contributor O points out.

The tour was a great learning experience and I highly recommend it. I had already visited a lot of European shops in the last few years and the tour rounded off the whole experience Ė and we had the great advantage of having a technologic knowledgeable interpreter along. My interest is for a machine capable of millwork, house doors and custom windows. We still do a few cabinets and would like to have the option of doing this also (for when the economy goes south). To do millwork it looks like the minimum new router would be in the 150 K range before any aggregates, laser boxes, tooling and other options. You start adding this up and it gets close to 200 K. Contributor A and contributor P are doing millwork. I would like your thoughts on this and what type routers you have. Used would also be an option for me, but I worry that old routers are like old computers.

Interestingly enough the Europeans don't think much of nesting cabinet parts even in the small shops. Some of the reasons might be they like dowel or connector joinery, donít like the idea of cutting sheets with a router bit and the cost of running a high hp vacuum pump. Their energy costs are huge. I have a large investment of insert shaper tooling. From what I can tell most of this will not work on the router because of weight and diameter. I have heard conflicting stories about this and would like some more opinions.



From contributor A:
To contributor S: Youíve asked a lot of good points and good questions. I'll limit my response to what you need to invest in a machine and let others address the rest. With some specific exceptions we primarily cut out our curved blanks on the CNC. These moulding blanks are then profiled elsewhere in the shop. As such my experience and knowledge tend to go more towards holding small and irregularly shaped parts for routing. This type of work does not require an expensive machine.

There are two ways to enter the world of CNC: either dump in a whole lot of money and get a turn key operation (you still of course need to learn to use it) or spend a whole lot less money and learn and build up as you go. There are certainly plenty of solid reasons to go either route. I tend to be financially conservative while having the good fortune of enjoying engineering solutions to problems and situations. As such the low upfront cost solution was the best fit for me.

My first router was a 5x10 DT902 two head machine. It was an early 90's, all aluminum machine that was very straightforward and easy to modify to my needs. After all was said and done, I eliminated one head and added a 5 position tool changer that made it into a first rate machine. I replaced that about 2003 with a CNT Motion 900 which is basically a further development of the early DT machines. I bought it as a bridge only kit and assembled it onto my old DT system base. I added a CNT 4 position tool changer but supplied my own HSD ISO30 spindle. The result is I have a very sophisticated machine for a fraction of the cost of a turn key CNT 900 system. Doing it my way I have under $20k in this 6 x10 (actually 76" x 126") system. Granted, doing what we do allows us to use a relatively inexpensive rotary vane pump vac pod hold down system. As such I don't need a regenerative blower hold down system, which probably saved me between $5k and $8k.

So, from my perspective I'd recommend not spending $125k or more. There is one thing all good quality 3-axis CNC routers have in common: moving accurately in 3 axis directions. For a small shop that isn't looking to cut 100+ panels a day at maximum production speed there is really no need to purchase a machine that will do that month in and month out. You also don't need 1000 to 2000 IPM feed rates as most small shop cutting is done at well under 500 IPM (we do most of ours at 150 to 200 even though my machine is rated up to 800 to 1000).

I'd say the first thing you want to do is to educate yourself on machine functions and features (which it sounds like you have done to a good extent already). Then look at machines under $80k and see if they will do everything you need to get solidly started. If they look promising then I'd even go one step further and tell you to look at sub-$50k machines as well. I think you'll be surprised at what you find.



From contributor E:
To contributor S: As to your question about insert shaper type tooling, we use it all the time. There are definitely limits to weight and size, depending on the machine, but so far I haven't run into anything we couldn't do. A set of doors we're working on has a 3 1/2"deep raised panel profile that we're doing with a custom made router bit (profile side A, flip part, profile side b). Using these big cutters is definitely risky, and hard on the machine. It gives you a lot more opportunities to crash. Also you must be extremely careful about spindle speeds with insert cutters. Most are not rated to spin faster than 10,000 rpm. My preference is to use several off the shelf router bits to build up a larger profile. Komo has done a lot of development in software and setup for interior doors.


From contributor S:
To contributor A: Thanks, I now understand how you produce your moldings. I tend to be conservative also and spending anything over 100K is going to take time for me to justify. The biggest issue, as my wife reminds me, is that I could semi-retire at any time and a huge investment like this could change that. I do love the work and plan on making sawdust till I pass on. Like everyone else I strive to reduce the business stress as much as possible. I feel like Iíve mastered my CAD software and Cabinetware. On the tour we had a class on Wood Wop and that seemed straightforward. Seems like the software is a big part of this and would plan to purchase or try software before getting a machine.

The right used machine is still a possibility or a lightweight machine just for drilling and hardware routing would be a way to get my feet wet. My existing shaper tooling is going to be a major factor in this decision.

To contributor E: This is exactly what I donít want to do and for that reason if I spend the big money I want to make sure itís the right machine. Raised panels on our NC shaper are an easy fast setup right now. What appeals to me about the CNC router is putting all parts on the machine to do every process including outside cuts on doors and windows without any material handling and with all calculations made in the programming. For the big money, anything less than this, and my shaper is a better option. We saw a lot of this type processing on the tour but they were using 250 Ė 300 K plus Homag machines with 60 tool changers, and running specific Klaes door and window software - more money and learning curve. If I go with a small machine it would be positioned next to the shaper so both could be used by one operator.



From contributor P:
ďMy interest is for a machine capable of millwork, house doors and custom windows. We still do a few cabinets and would like to have the option of doing this also (for when the economy goes south). To do millwork it looks like the minimum new router would be in the 150 K range before any aggregates, laser boxes, tooling and other options. You start adding this up it gets close to 200 K. Contributor A and contributor P are doing millwork. I would like your thoughts on this and what type routers you have. Used would also be an option for me, but I worry that old routers are like old computers.Ē

There is a lot of used iron out there right now. Worth considering but get late model stuff or you will have to deal with older controllers etc. I have a Vytek - I bought the first one about 10yr ago and traded in about 7yr ago for their better quality model. I paid about 50k the first time and 70 the second. It is comparable to a Motionmaster. It is a light machine. It has 12 positions for tools, and HSD spindle.

I use it for cutting parts, mostly panel goods. Regarding the doors (the only mill work we do), we cut the centers out of slabs, cut the panels (usually with arches) and cut curved moldings for the doors out of MDF of varying thickness. The panels are shaped on a shaper. I think the lighter router is fine for panels. If you wanted to get into cutting hardwood with it that would be a different matter. I have cut lots of hardwood but not on a regular basis, I donít think the machine would hold up. Also if you want to get into cutting hardwood I think you need to go to a large diameter cutter to get the edge finish you would want, which would require a heavier machine also.

Regarding the European paradigm I think they are like a lot of the big dogs around here that looked down their noses at routers at first also but now they are buying routers along with their existing ptp beam saw setup. The make-break decision on router verses P2Ps is whether or not you can book or stack cut panels in which case the beam saw is the way to go. Otherwise the consensus is that the router is faster.



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