Dreams Endangered

"He began his shop with one machine in his garage. " It's how a lot of today's prosperous and innovative metalworking companies got their start years ago.

Columns From: 3/1/1996 Modern Machine Shop, ,

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Mark Albert

Mark has been writing his Mark: My Word column every month since January, 1981.

"He began his shop with one machine in his garage."

It's how a lot of today's prosperous and innovative metalworking companies got their start years ago. It's part of the American dreama guy forming his own company and making it grow and flourish. Question is, is it still possible for a talented and ambitious machinist or tool and die maker to go off on his or her own and succeed?

The answer is "Yes" but this assertion can't be made with the same enthusiasm and hopefulness with which it once could. The success rate for garage-shop operations has probably never been very high, but at least getting into the game was manageable. Starting up a new shop is tougher these days and likely to get even tougher in the years ahead.

Consider the minimum level of technology that even a small shop has to have to be viable. CNC, CAD/CAM, SPC, EDMit's an expensive and complex technology alphabet even at the entry stage.

Financing is more costly and harder to arrange. Bankers and investors want to see a really well-thought-out business plan, the kind you need an MBA to put together.

Government regulations, safety and environmental codes, permits, paperwork and other red tape certainly make a start-up more complicated.

Perhaps the most daunting new wrinkle is that the traditional customers most likely to support a new shop are going away. Fewer and fewer of them are looking only for expert machining. It's more likely they want a much broader range of services, from design and engineering assistance upfront, to assembly, finishing or special packaging at the other end.

Yet not all is gloomy. If the one machinist/one machine/one garage scenario is fading, perhaps two or three buddies can make it as a team by pooling talents, resources, and energy. Daydreams, like paradigms, are shiftable.

Today's successful shop owners ought to consider incubating the next generation of shop owners by setting off some space for and sharing some wherewithal with those employees whose entrepreneurial spirit and initiative might not otherwise find an outlet. It would be an act of self-survival.

The way I see it, those who dream, plan. Those who plan, act. Those who act, keep our industry alive. If the dream of starting one's own shop is endangered, then so are we all.

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