Keeping Up, One Small Step at a Time

Incremental change is the secret to staying globally competitive in an industry where everything seemingly is obsolete as soon as you buy it.

As a machine shop owner, I have many demands on my attention. 

Every day I’m bombarded by a ton of different issues. Much of that impact comes from salespeople or the media telling me all about a new tool or a new state-of-the-art piece of equipment that will revolutionize my business and skyrocket my profits. Articles are being written about how 3D printing is the way of the future, but at the same time, I can hear about a brand-new technology to make machining better than ever and also read a grim prediction for the industry’s ultimate fate.

This constant stream of conflicting information is tearing apart my brain cells. I often wonder why I didn’t just become a plumber. My life would have been much simpler. All I would need is a wrench, right?

Over the past 30 years, I have come to believe that machining is the most capital-intensive industry out there. It can seem as though everything we buy for our shops soon becomes obsolete. We only have to take a look at the hundreds of orphan tools in our tool cribs to know that’s the truth. But we tend to keep all of them, just in case that one job on which we used that particular tool comes back around again 17 years later.

So how do we keep our shops competitive?

Part of that constant stream of conflicting information introduces us to new equipment that can completely change the game, so to speak, for our individual shops. This is what happened when multi-axis machines with automated handling systems first came out. A lot has changed since then. Trying to stay competitive today with three-axis machining centers or two-axis lathes is like a new printer opening up shop armed with only the original Gutenberg printing press. Try taking on Kinkos with that.

It’s not enough to just have modern machinery, however. Shops also need to stay current with software in order to run competitively. CAD/CAM, enterprise resource planning, material requirements planning—over time, our machine shops could begin to resemble mini NASA mission control centers, with employees attached to little screens, monitoring every aspect of the business from equipment to people to profit and productivity, seemingly all calculated down to the nanosecond. Somewhat creepy.

Why would anyone put themselves through this non-stop merry-go-round of investments in order to stay current and competitive? When the pace of our industry becomes overwhelming, stop the merry-go-round, take a deep breath, and think.

The ultimate goal of every machine shop is to be globally competitive. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what that means, however, because what’s competitive today may not be tomorrow. It’s a goal that’s always in forward motion.

Machining has become a lot more complicated over the past century, and even the last decade. If we allow it to, the number of innovations and amount of information out there could overwhelm us. What should we do when we can’t possibly do everything? The key is to do something.

So many shops choose to just do nothing and then get so far behind in remaining competitive that they can never catch up. Competitiveness may look like a mountain that needs to be climbed right away, but focusing on making small changes in our businesses daily or weekly will get us to the top of the mountain eventually.

Begin by developing an improvement plan that will make your shop a little bit better every day. To start, figure out what equipment you will need to be more competitive in the future, not just today. If you buy for today, you will be frustrated tomorrow.

You can also start standardizing your tooling from good suppliers. This will help make your machining more predictable. You should only change to other tooling if you determine that it fits your shop and benefits most of the shop’s machining processes. 

Next, look for ways to streamline programming and scheduling. Always think simple. Simple means faster, which means more productive. Try to streamline and simplify every day.

When we focus on becoming incrementally better, just a little bit each day, we will reach our goals, slowly but surely. Be consistent, and results will follow.

I’m trying to do this, too. With the lowered stress level of focusing on small, daily improvements instead of a mega-mountain of them all at once, I have a happier outlook for the future of machining. I think I’ll give up on the idea of being a plumber. After all, then I’d have to change my tooling.

Udo Jahn is general manager at Modern Engineering, a Vancouver-area contract machine shop that is one of the larger five-axis machining providers on Canada's west coast. More at moderneng.com.