Small Shops, Small Runs, Big Dreams

By: Lou Kren

Friday, August 1, 2008
For this month’s issue I authored articles profiling two prototype/small-lot fabricators. One, Fabricating Solutions in Solon, OH, employs a state-of-the-art press brake to make prototypes. The other, New England Laser Processing, Danvers, MA, uses laser-cutting and -marking machines. Both are reflections of their owners.

Dewey Lockwood of Fabricating Solutions has been around press brakes his whole life, acquiring the wisdom and experience to bring art to the process where science leaves off. That mix of art and science is a must where each day brings new customers in need of new, efficient s to make parts. You can read how Lockwood and his company meet those needs beginning on page 28.

Michael McCullock wasn’t sure what he wanted to do when he started at New England Laser in 1990 as a temporary employee, but he knew he didn’t want to keep working in a laser-cutting shop. His grandfather convinced him instead to soak up all the knowledge he could. After nearly two decades in the laser-cutting arena, McCullock recently purchased the company, putting all he’s learned to work in modernizing hardware, software and equipment, and developing a business plan that aggressively seeks out new work. Turn to page 32 to read all about it.

Besides passionate ownership and a focus on prototyping and small-lot production, these two companies have something else in common. Each has only four employees. Is fabrication success possible where the company outing requires only one picnic table? It is when we’re talking prototypes and part runs numbering in the single digits. Assuming a highly skilled workforce, according to their owners an asset possessed by Fabricating Solutions and New England Laser Processing, projects can move quickly. With the proper software and manufacturing capability, small shops can provide prototypes in a hurry, and even crank out production parts until hard tooling is available. The layers a project must pass through in a larger company can slow development to a crawl. A four-person shop, on the other hand, has less layers than one-ply bath tissue, meaning no time wasted as numerous departments weigh in. That means more time spent on the work, not on administrative and corporate functions. With time to market critical for customers, wasted time is not an option.

Of course, there are potential pitfalls: equipment breakdowns and employee illness to name just two. And the entire world of prototype work may be unnerving to some.

“It can be scary making a living on prototyping,” offers Lockwood. “My 18-yr.-old son works for me part-time, and he says, ‘How do you do it?’ At the beginning of the day we may have no idea what we have to make and at the end of the day we have to know not only what we are making, but how to make it correctly and quickly. Each day is different.”

That excitement demands flexibility in employees, scheduling and equipment. But long-time prototype and short-run veterans know that, and relish the challenge confident that they are positioned to ensure success.

““The days of 5000-piece runs seem to have ended,” McCullock says. “It is sad that we don’t see the volumes that we used to, so we perform short-run work and may cut one part, or ten 3-in.-dia. parts. If I need to put out 16 or 20 one-piece jobs, so be it. We have been doing this for a long, long time and we know how to move jobs through and get things done.”


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