Open Your Own Machine Shop? Here is Advice On Starting Small
Read what shop owners had to say to someone who wondered whether he should open a very small shop of his own.
A reader recently asked, “Can someone make money with one Bridgeport mill? I’m thinking about starting small with one mill in my home shop. Is it worth it? Will I be able to grow and buy more machines?”
We shared this question with other readers via our e-mail newsletter, MMS Extra. Here are some of the responses we received:
I believe you can still start small and make it work. We are in this very process. The key is to clearly define your business, have a single purpose, and not try to be everything to everyone. Sometimes you will have to say no and walk away from an opportunity. This focus is necessary for two reasons:
First, it gives you a foundation for making all business decisions. Does doing A advance my purpose? Is it in line with my goal?
Second, it simplifies your marketing efforts. This again makes decisions easier and keeps you on-task and more efficient.
By keeping it simple you can focus all your efforts into being the best at what you do. I believe that it is always better to be the very best at one thing, rather than mediocre at a dozen.
I have started several home-based shops over the years, as I have had time or need for a second income. The challenge is finding the niche to fill. My home shop has done everything from finding odd jobs on the Internet through user groups (I found a group of collectors of Star Wars memorabilia that provided enough work to pay for my first lathe and mill) to finishing castings for a small electronics company in town.
Machining Solutions, Inc.
Yes, you can still start small, but expect to fill your time doing prototypes without any lead time. Always seems like there is demand for this type of work.
Dave's Machine LLC
I started small. I purchased a Hurco VM1 and I am renting a space in another business. I've been in the trade for 30 years. The company I worked for closed its doors in October 2007, and I opened my business in January 2008.
It’s been tough going. I do not think anyone could make it today with just one manual mill. I say that because of the complexity of parts I see every day. Some type of CNC control is needed.
But there is so much more than just the machine. You need contacts (a good reputation helps), plus tools, computer, software—the list keeps growing.
I have managed to purchase another mill, a Prototrak bed mill from Southwestern Industries. But now I have to keep both machines running, all while quoting work, ordering material, sending invoices and paying the bills.
The bottom line: If you are in it to earn a living, no way without CNC. If it is a hobby and you want to make some extra cash fixing lawn mowers or doing odd repair jobs, then yes, you could make a little cash with one knee mill.
My response would have been different 20 years ago. I would have said you could make it. But now every engineer and designer is using Solidworks or something similar. Seems like nothing has a straight line or square corner anymore.
You’ve got to start somewhere. I believe it depends more on the person than the machinery.
The benefit of a single manual machine is low overhead, which can help you get into the business and start to build some capital for the eventual CNC investment.
On the other hand, there is a boatload of competition for the single-mill shop right now. It seems like everyone at the shooting range and race track has a knee-mill in his garage.
At this point, there are so many used CNC machines available that maybe you can take the CNC step right away. That is what I did.
Either way, though, I believe you will need a lathe as well.
I think there will always be an opportunity for a startup shop. But if you don’t have one of the following, don’t start until you do:
1. A good contact within a business that you know is looking for someone to do the small jobs that are too costly for it to do internally or at a large shop.
2. A willingness to work all night or all weekend to deliver a part when the larger established shops cannot respond quickly. For example, a machine might break down, leaving your customer’s maintenance department needing a part repaired or replaced by the next morning.
3. A specialty that you are absolutely better at than anybody else.
One caution, though! The Bridgeport mill may be one of the least expensive costs of starting the business. There is always another special tool, gage, machine attachment, material, coolant, maintenance item, administrative cost, tax, and so on. It takes a while to actually make money that you can put into your pocket.
C.J. Ackley Machine
Willow Grove, Pennsylvania
Yes, it is possible to start small. I started a small machine shop about 20 years ago. I have been part-time all these years, while working full time as a machinist for another company.
I started with a 10-inch South Bend lathe. When I paid it off, I bought a mill, another lathe, then a 2-axis CNC mill.
Find a good niche to get started. Designing your own products is a good place to start. I began by making special bicycle components, which has been my mainstay for all these years. I have run out of room to expand, but certainly could expand if I had the space. Since I don't have the room for more CNC machines, I farm work out to a shop that I have a good relationship with. I stick to short run and prototype manufacturing at my shop and send the other orders out. This method has been very profitable for me even in tough times.
Hi-Tec Tool, Inc.
Greer, South Carolina
Yes, I think it is. The big thing you need to have is a product to make. Then get the things you need to make that product—build your shop that way.
I own and operate a small job shop and if I had not had a product to make 15 years ago, I would never have made it. I have very little work now, as much of the work I have done for years has moved to other countries.
I am very grateful for a lesson my parents taught me: Pay as you go. I have 4 CNC machining centers along with manual milling, turning, fabrication and welding equipment—and it’s all paid for. It’s not new now, but it all still works. Times may be hard, but times are much easier without payments!
I’m a machinist but a poor salesperson. I think that has a lot to do with my lack of work at this time. If you love the trade as much as I do, I hope you’ll do OK.