Over at Lost Art Press, Chris Schwarz has posted several blog entries in the past week about Crucible Tool – the company he, John Hoffman and I are launching next month. As one of them was a total ego-inflator of puff piece about me, I’m currently feeling quite confident that the world needs to hear my perspective – and so here we go.
For the last few years, I’ve grappled with how to branch out from Daed Toolworks. I love planemaking, and I don’t imagine ever stopping it, but I also know I’m never at my best unless at least part of my time is devoted to pushing boundaries and learning new things.
So when I started bouncing my half-baked ideas off Chris while helping out at a class he was teaching last fall, I wasn’t thinking (at first) about involving him or John at all – honestly I’d have bet my shop that neither of them would ever work for any company but LAP. But it became very clear, very quickly, that what wanted looked a lot like LAP in structure. And it also became clear that Chris, and then John, were as enthusiastic about the idea as I was.
And so it just fell into place. Chris and John had designed a business model that worked, and more importantly that let them sleep well at night and love what they do. John had spent the last decade hashing out and running a genius back-end at LAP – systems for taking and fulfilling orders, bookkeeping, storage, shipping — all the things that (if they work well) you never notice as a customer. Chris has spent 20 years studying, writing about and teaching woodworking, and is constantly trying new (old) tools, processes and ideas in his own shop, with students, and in his writing. On top of that, he’s one of the best – and most prolific – communicators I know.
Most importantly, though, we all get along well, have the same ethics and focus, and the same ideas about what we want to accomplish. And that’s not a small thing. The number of people who I could get along with (and who don’t want to toss me off a cliff in a couple hours) in a business partnership, who also have the right skills, AND who share my very strong – but perhaps idiosyncratic – sense of ethics… that’s a minuscule number of people. One hand, at best.
There was just one real correction to our plan. It was a doozy, but I think it’s for the better in every way.
Initially, we intended to outsource all the manufacturing to small businesses we liked working with.
Rude awakening. Getting some things made proved really, really difficult. The tool I’m working on right now was earth-shatteringly difficult to source. I requested quotes from almost two dozen shops, and most just said no without bothering to quote. The half dozen quotes we did get were ludicrous. In fact, the best bid was (literally) 10 times higher than our target price.
Which brings me to The Lab.
If you’re trying to get something made, and every shop is pricing it way out of your range, you’ve got a serious problem. 99 percent of the time, it’s a message that you’re out to lunch.
We decided this was the other 1 percent.
The long and short of it is that manufacturing and job shops have changed in the last 10 years. When the economy crashed in 2008, many machine shops shut down. These high-overhead operations, so a long down cycle kills them in droves. There is an argument that this culling is good – that it’s survival of the fittest. And there’s some truth to that.
But I think in this case there were major downsides as well. Specifically, the businesses that did survive and thrive through the downturn were mostly those totally focused on efficient, lean production.
That sounds good, right? Efficiency, productivity, lean – we all know those are good things, because innovation,, entrepreneurs, global economy, and METRICS!
But the thing is that the prototyping and small-run shops, the ones that specialized in being able to make anything any time – most of them didn’t survive. The generalist shops just couldn’t compete with the ultra-specialists.
So if you are looking to make something that doesn’t fit in the typical machine setups, and isn’t a simple variation on a commonly-made widget, it’s just a risky and disruptive situation for a streamlined shop.
This isn’t because the shops left standing aren’t capable; there are still just as many brilliant machinists out there as ever. If you’re large enough to offer a constant stream of income, a shop will set up a production line to accommodate you. But if you’re running at a smaller scale, it’s not worth the time and risk unless you can be shoehorned in between larger jobs without disrupting the regular jobs. And a full change in setup on a machine takes too much time to bid, plan, and setup without risking problems with your bread and butter jobs.
So many shops don’t want to even quote those jobs – and the ones that do (if they’re smart) have to price it through the roof to offset those risks. They don’t really want the job, but if you’re desperate or stupid enough to take their quote, they’re more than happy to take your money.
Is there another way? We think so. Between the three of us, we have decades of experience in using and designing tools – their construction, the critical details that separate great from useless. And we can explain them, sell them, deliver them in an organized fashion and get people using them in short order. It’s a nearly perfect microcosm of vertical integration. There was just one thing missing. None of us had experience manufacturing tools at scale.
So we decided to take it on. We spent a small fortune on a toolroom mill that is also capable of small-scale production work. We tooled it up to my dream specifications, moved it into the Lab, and I started cracking a lot of books and learning G-code, CAD/CAM, fixturing, coolant options, control electronics and a quick delve into Arduino.
And after four months of 100-hour weeks, I feel completely justified in our decision.
Are we out of our minds and full of hubris for even thinking we can do this, when all those shops suggested we were off base? Maybe. Maybe not. What I can offer as a defense is that I am not a risk-taker in my professional life. And I would never have taken this on if I didn’t think we had the right ideas – and more importantly, the right three people to make it work.
And if we’re lucky, in a couple of years we’ll find someone we’re comfortable handing the production off to. With the programming, fixturing, and time-to-run all worked out and proven, it’s completely different job from a risk and hassle standpoint.
But if no one wants the job even then, we just move on to plan B, which involves a lot of concrete, new power lines and generating our own AI for the robot workers. Hell, I’ve never done that before…