When you’re running a CNC business, opportunities for growth come in a number of different forms. Whether you need to make more parts, make parts faster, or add new capabilities to your shop, most CNC entrepreneurs see new ways to build their businesses once things are up and running.
Oftentimes the idea of scaling production - creating ways to make more parts, and sometimes faster - can be intimidating. CNC entrepreneurs often have a mindset that their machine is the one thing holding them back. The thinking that “If I just had a bigger mill, this would go smoother/faster/better,” resonates with many business owners, and getting a bigger mill can be intimidating from both a logistics standpoint (ie. will it fit in my garage/basement/shop) but also from a financial position. Bigger machines mean more capital and more overhead for your business.
But, what if there was a way to scale your business without making a major investment?
There are a number of ways to improve your shop’s output without upscaling to something larger and more intimidating. Here are six ways to scale your production without making a major capital investment.
1. Buy an Automatic Tool Changer (ATC)
Picking up an automatic tool changer is a way to add automation to your CNC workflow. With an ATC, there’s no need to babysit your machine while waiting for the next tool change. That means you can get more done in the shop while the machine is busy making parts.
An ATC also helps scale your business because you can do lights-out machining, or let your machine run unattended at all hours of the day and night. More time with your spindle running means more parts get made.
Using an ATC also provides a different level of efficiency and/or consistency to machining your parts. If a human is babysitting the machine to swap out tools, there is a margin for human error every time you have a tool change. Changing tools automatically removes some of that human intervention and possibility for errors.
2. Using Multiple Vise Jaws
Using multiple vise jaws streamlines the process of changing the parts you’re cutting. With different sets of jaws designed and set up to accommodate varying parts in your machine, you can reduce the time needed to indicate in stock and set up workholding, and even provide some extra peace of mind, since the system will be proven out.
Aluminum or steel soft jaws can be customized for specific parts or projects, meaning you can use the same vise for multiple (oddly shaped) parts. Essentially, allowing you to keep jobs in a queue, and swap in the jaws when you’re ready to make chips. This also allows for repeatability because you can quickly load up old jobs and make a new batch without having to put together new workholding.
Swappable vise jaw systems like the CarveSmart Jaw System or the TalonGripVise Jaw System with Mitee-Bite provide even faster ways to have consistent workholding. These systems can make setup faster, but what’s more, they make setup highly repeatable. Meaning, you can save lots of time and headaches, even if your shop has a high-mix, low-volume setup.
3. Palletize Your Workflow
Another way to make setup more efficient, and effectively scaling your business, is to add palletizing to your workflow.
Similar to using multiple vise jaws, using a pallet system streamlines the workholding process. Sometimes, you have parts that just don’t fit into a vise well, but a pallet system provides the ability to hold varying parts to a consistent surface that can easily move in and out of workholding within the machine.
Using a pallet provides an opportunity to get parts set up in your workholding outside the machine. So, parts can run while you prepare the next part(s) for cutting. A pallet system also provides more repeatability with your workholding, which means more consistent parts and leads to more overall production.
Derek Schuetz, owner and operator of FidgetThings (@fidgetthings on Instagram), uses his 770MX and a Pierson Pallet System to make various everyday carry (EDC) items, like haptic toys, spinners, utility knives, and coins. “Each of my items were made in a vice and once proven as a good item to sell, then I create a easy to swap pallet so I can make batches easily and quickly,” he explains.
Schuetz started using a pallet system after previously only using a standard vise. “With experience came the need to get more efficient. Also, I liked the idea of just setting a work offset once and never again.”
4. Shop Setup and Layout
The setup and flow of your shop can make all the difference in the world! If you leverage the principles of lean manufacturing and organize your shop around those ideas, you’ll find out how moments of wasted time walking around a pillar or digging through a toolbox can really add up.
Organizing your shop to be efficient will not only save you frustration, but it will also save you tons of time. These time savings can provide you with the ability to run your shop faster and possibly even cheaper, and that means you have room to scale.
John Saunders even did a video about shop layout. He found it so important that he 3D printed every machine (at the time) and laid it out in a model to help determine where everything should go.
5. Planning Cycle Times
While it’s always a good idea to know how long your parts take from start to finish, it’s arguably more important to know how those times fit into your day.
For instance, say you have a cycle time of 3.5 hours and you want to be in the shop for eight hours a day. You’ll want to plan the setup and organize of those cycle times so that you can get as many cycles into a day as possible.
In this case, you’d want to have everything set up to run when you first arrive in the morning, and start making chips right away. Assuming 30 minutes to swap out a finished part for raw stock, you could get three 3.5-hour cycle times into one day. Two would happen while you were in the shop, and the last would start just as you’re leaving; providing optimal use of your time in front of the machine.
6. Self-Service Repairs
Many machine tool companies keep users locked out of their machines, or void warranties and service if you decide to make your own repairs. Tormach machines are designed to be serviced and maintained by the end-user, which means you get make repairs and updates as soon as they are available.
With the help of technical documents and our Technical Support YouTube Channel, you don't need to schedule and wait around for a certified technician to work on your machine. Downtime is almost never a good thing, but being able service a machine yourself means you can get back to making chips sooner.
Bonus: Leverage Inexpensive Financing
While this list will certainly help you scale your business without making a major capital investment, sometimes it’s just time to add a machine to your shop.
If you’re already a Tormach owner, you know the value of having an inexpensive yet robust machine tool that fits into just about any shop. But, there is more opportunity when adding more Tormach machines.
Two Tormach mills still cost less than a larger VMC with similar features (including software options like adaptive roughing, that are available at no charge in PathPilot), and that means more cash in-hand. Retaining cash in an uncertain economy is important for any business, but especially small manufacturing businesses. That’s why Tormach partners with Geneva Capital to provide inexpensive financing for our machine tools.
When you compare the return on dollars in your bank account versus dollars invested in a machine, it is dramatically apparent that a machine will give you more return and provide more value, even though the financing has interest.
It’s always about picking the right tool for the job. If your business is in need of steady expansion, there are a number of ways to scale without adding more overhead. But, if you’re drowning in orders, scaling by purchasing a second or third machine might be the right answer.