How Does A Small Shop Compete For Profitable Jobs?

Posted by: 7. December 2014

GF AgieCharmilles HEM 500U

It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there when it comes to contract machining.  Profitability is far from guaranteed and often depends on matching the appropriate machine tools for the job.  Sure, if a shop specializes in certain types of parts, dedicated equipment may be the quickest route to profit. Some shops may be expert in swiss-type turning, for example, because they cater to the medical or small connector industry. But what happens if those sectors take a down turn?  While swiss-type turning centers are much more flexible then screw machines of the past, they are still primarily dedicated to small part production.  I can remember a real-world illustration of how difficult it was for a large OEM manufacturer to transition from high-volume production of fittings, to lower volume with a lot more variety, back in the 80s. Their hundreds of multi-spindle screw machines just couldn’t hack the shift that the market demanded and the scramble was on. Because they are a large manufacturer, the other divisions were able to help absorb the shock from that painful transition. But a small shop, with dedicated equipment that might have been a sub-contractor, probably went out of business.

For the job shop, diversification as a business strategy, can’t typically depend on other divisions carrying the load during a market shift.  So, one of the smartest diversification strategies a small shop can employ, might be to own flexible machinery.  Yes, as it always has been, flexible equipment won’t usually match the highest production rates of more specialized machinery. But accepting that fact and acquiring flexible machinery to diversify the business may be one of the smartest decisions job shop management can make. Adding flexible equipment opens the door to multiple markets, thus ensuring a source of work even when one or more markets turn down.

More and more frequently, the key to American metalworking manufacturers making money is they’re ability to quickly change course, adapt, modify, take on any part type, and do it in smaller batches.  

Some of the most flexible machine tools are mutli-tasking. The term has many connotations and even more actual meanings. But in the simplest terms, it refers to a multi process machine too. For example some multi-tasking machines can both mill and turn, while others can turn and grind, etc. To more fully understand multi-tasking, visit the MultiTasking knowledge center.

Another way to achieve flexibility in machine tools is by adding axes, the programmable motion of slides, spindles, and tables. Five-axis machining centers have too often been thought of and used only for complex 3D type work. But in a previous posting, 5-Axis, Fear Not, I write about applications where five-axis machines are ideal for less complex parts. As I explained, part processing profit isn’t realized through cutting speed alone. five-axis machining centers can reduce cost-to-process by eliminating or reducing multiple setups, complex fixtures, and operator intervention for loading and unloading, and by increasing accuracy, throughput, and overall shop floor efficiency.

I read an article about a startup shop in Colorado that didn’t make the mistake of limiting their flexibility by limiting their thinking when planning for their future. Advanced Machining, Inc., Longmont, CO, acquired several of the most flexible machine tools without really knowing what jobs they’d be running. And that's the point. Owning flexible equipment eliminates guess work so the company is open to opportunities that come their way.  In their case, the economical +GF+ HEM 500U 5-axis machining center along with two other high speed 5-axis models, the HSM 600U and HSM 400U, opened the door to help them compete, profitably. 

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