Start a Machine Shop
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January, 2014 Blog:
Are you considering starting your own machine shop

Occasionally, machinists, tool & die makers, CNC machine operators and programmers will ask themselves whether starting a machine shop of their own would be better than working for someone else. If your boss is difficult to work for you may ask yourself this every day. Or maybe you were laid off and are thinking of starting your own shop until/instead of finding employment at another company. Whatever your motivation, you have a lot of decisions to make and it could seem overwhelming.

Starting out small with a few manual machines may be the only path for those who do not have all the money and client base to open a full service machine shop. It is common for someone to start-up with one manual milling machine so they can build capital for more machines such as a lathe, horizontal bandsaw, vertical bandsaw, surface grinding machines etc. Either buy your mill new or carefully test a used one before you buy it. Also consider adding a digital readout to your mill for accuracy and convenience. Note that there are many single-mill shops and garages out there so the competition could be tough and you may need to keep your current job for a while.

Most likely the next machine you would need after a manual mill is a horizontal bandsaw which is needed to cut your stock to correct length for machining. You should plan ahead when buying a machine and a saw is no different. Much depends upon the size of the work you will be quoting and machining. Remember that it is always better to have more capacity when purchasing a machine because you don't know what your next job will be and you want to avoid pushing a machine at full capacity.

Now some would prefer a lathe before investing in a saw. This is understandable because much round work (especially small round work) could be cut-off in a lathe. The most important criteria in selecting one are the maximum swing over bed and cross-slide and the distance between centers. If you are new to lathes please note that most lathe model numbers reflect the size of the lathe so, for example, the model Jet GH-1440W tells you that this lathe has a 14" swing over the bed ways and 40" between centers. Note that while you would be able to turn 14" diameter material on a 14x40 you may not have a way to hold the material because the chuck jaws will not be large enough. You will also not be able to move the lathe cutting tool to work on the full length of long parts because the maximum diameter you can swing over the cross-slide is much smaller than the maximum swing over the bed.

If you are looking for greater dimensional accuracy, flatness, squareness and finish you will want to consider purchasing a surface grinding machine. A good surface grinder will be able to achieve +/-0.0002" while maintaining flatness with a superior finish. Also, with a surface grinder you are able to "dress" the grinding wheel with specific geometries that could then be transferred by grinding to your work. Precision grinding does take consider time to do and will add cost to the job so be sure you need to add this expensive step.

Some say if you want to earn a good living you will need to go with CNC (Computer Numerical Control) mills, lathes and other manufacturing machines. CNC machines, programmed correctly, will definitely decrease production time and decrease mistakes. The most versatile is a machining center. A properly programmed machining center can do many operations all by itself without much operator involvement. So if you can afford one, it is a great way to get parts made while you are busy doing something else. There are often used CNC machines available but note that these highly complex machines are sold "as is" and should be bought locally to allow you to check the machine out thoroughly in person before buying.

We always recommend buying new machines from a reputable machinery distributor such as American Machine Tools Company. This can help avoid many potential problems, especially Murphy's Law. It is always worth your while to talk to an experienced salesman about your machinery needs so we can recommend the correct machine and answer all your questions before you purchase. Surprises are only fun on your birthday. Remember that there is always something you will need (machine attachment, gage, material, maintenance part, cutting tools, special tools, administrative cost etc.) so it can actually take a while before you start making a profit. So make sure you have a cushion of money and one or more credit cards handy before you get started.

Don't forget sales! Even if you have a busy workload this week, always be on the lookout for your next client. When looking for work you might want to concentrate on manufacturing companies who are more likely to become repeat clients. The contacts you have accumulated over the years before you became independent will become very valuable. Call them and visit them. Is there a military base near you? Then get registered as a government contractor and contact the base to find out who you need to talk to. But be warned that some military bases are difficult to get onto for security reasons. It can help if you are a veteran. Are there weld shops nearby? Call them. They sometimes need machining work done as part of their welding and fabrication projects. No matter what the industry you are calling on, you will often find that the manager you need to talk to is at their desk early in the morning and near the end of the workday.

Quoting the work is always difficult. If you quote too high you probably wont get the work. If you quote too low you will probably lose money on the work. You need to develop a system. Assign a cost to each operation needed to make a part with a big component being the setup operation. Put these values on paper or into a computer and keep a file of every job you make parts for so that if you get a similar part to quote you can look back at how you made it and what it cost you last time. There are some helpful job shop computer programs that you can buy that make this easier.

Lastly, if you hire a family member or friend to work for you, make sure you never allow the work to ruin your relationship with them. That is especially true if you hire your wife (or husband). There is a big risk of harming your marriage or just plan gettting tired of seeing each other all day and then all night. Finally instead of ending this blog post with a good luck! We want to remind you that starting your own machine shop may seem like a lot of hard work, but you will probably not regret it in the long run.

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