Should the Shop Owner Master the CNC?

August 19, 2013

Question (WOODWEB Member) :
I own a small commercial millwork company where my primary focus is on running and growing the business. Integral to our operations is an SCMi CNC router driven by CV and Alphacam. Up to now I have never viewed knowing how to program and operate the CNC a primary duty of mine. However of late I am really questioning my judgment here. Who in my shoes has firsthand intimate knowledge of CNC programming and router operations? Should I commit the time and energy to learning this software and machine or continue applying my skills in a way that best serve the company?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From Contributor S:
Looking at your website I'd say you do not need to be a competent operator/programmer of the CNC. I am guessing your company is large enough that you could not operate the machinery and keep up with the business side of things even if you wanted too.

Some hints: Print out and save all UCSís and construction methods in your CV. Keep a separate personal backup of the machine settings and all software parameters for your computerized machines. I have seen shops nearly go out of business when the CV/CNC guy quits and leaves the company stranded. I have written so many UCSís and have so many odd work-arounds for CV that I do not think a novice user could figure it out. Another strategy is to have your software rep set up everything and keep your operators locked out from customizing the programs. This means that the worst case scenario is you will have to ask your rep to help you out.

I think a good shop owner cannot get too bogged down in the details. You need to be able to look over the entire operation and focus on keeping it all running smoothly, not to mention sales and marketing.

Your personality is another factor. Personally my ego dictates that I know more about the machines, processes and software than my employees. I am a technical guy who actually enjoys cleaning the linear bearing guides and scraping the caked dust off the boring block on the CNC. I prefer to leave the marketing and sales to others. Unfortunately this has not worked out too well for me as I have often owned and managed the most efficient and perfect shop around while at the same time I was losing money. If your heart is in building a business and growing it do not get too distracted. Go to the shows every year and keep on top of the latest technology there. It is better that you know more about the next software and machinery you will buy than how to do the job of one of your employees. Keep ahead of them by looking to the future and let them be the experts on the current tools in the shop.

From Contributor H:
My first reaction to your question was a simple "yes". However Contributor S makes some very good points. I think the operative issue is the size of your company. Websites can make small shops look larger than they actually are. In my business I spend the bulk of my time in the office. However I design and set up all the machine systems we use. Like Contributor S I enjoy that aspect of things. If you have a large number of employees then you can cover yourself by having a main and backup CNC operator. If you have just a few employees then I think there is a real advantage in knowing how to run the CNC system.

I was on a CNC discussion panel once where I talked about the advantages of knowing the mechanical workings of your CNC router. A well respected member of the panel responded "I just want to be able to hit a button and get the machine running". Both are legitimate outlooks, it just depends upon who you are and the nature of your operation.

From the original questioner:
I appreciate your collective insights. My business is not so large that I have redundancies in place. Two CV seats, two programmers and one programmer is also the operator. It is large enough however that I do not have enough time to do all things well such as prospecting, product development, financial management, pricing, sales planning, operations management, web, vendor management, etc. I am very detailed and spent 17 years as an institutional analyst in corporate America. I know more about wood working, process and methodology than most my staff even though I am not a wood worker.

It is my job to know right? I love detail, am very analytical and don't think learning CV or the router is beyond my reach. Where our CNC center and all it involves is so pivotal to our operations I cannot help but feel hugely exposed in this area. I hate it honestly but to take the time to learn it and means something else has to give. I already work 80 plus hours per week and have difficulty keeping pace in all areas. Our lead programmer is quite talented and I honestly feel like he likes where his is with our company. That said, I don't think we are doing all that we can with our software and it's going to take someone else to drive change from withiní. CV and Alphacam are quite robust and can far more than generate code. We need desperately to tap into its other capabilities.

Contributor S you bring up some great points to preserve infrastructure and where our platform is networked we have the ability to limit and lock things down. More reflection is necessary to really figure this one out.

From Contributor L
I have to agree with Contributor S. I also liked working in the shop and knowing everything there was to know about the machines. I couldn't keep up with running the business and the machines and I hired people for the CAD stations and machines. Always keep a second operator trained and running the machines part time so they stay up on the process. Chase the CAD guys out of the office and onto the shop floor to work there once in a while to see it from the other side.