ShopBot Production Support

Like many ShopBot owners I keep a list of maintenance and improvement projects that I fully intend to get around to doing at some point.  Routine maintenance such as replacing pinion gears and filing rails, upgrades like adding the spindle control card or cleaning up messy wiring, even “emergency” repairs like removing the broken off thumb screw from the dust shoe are all good examples of things that really need to get done, but not necessarily done today.   Like most people, I find that the time to tackle these types of projects is precious and hard to come by.  However, since we rely on our machine and use it a lot, I don’t think it’s a good idea to put off basic maintenance indefinitely.

Several months ago ShopBot announced a new program which they call “Production Support”.  For a flat fee, a trained and experienced technician will spend a day at your shop, take care of any routine maintenance, advise on any issues that might need to be discussed, and spend any remaining time training the machine owner and/or operator.  Frankly, when I read the description, my first thoughts were “that’s really expensive for something I can easily do myself”.  I wondered whether ShopBot would attract any takers other than a few production-oriented companies.  So I was surprised to hear that the response was immediate and much greater than I expected.  Still, I had no intention of signing up.  Everything on my list could be done in-house, either by me or one of my employees.  Surely we could find a day or two at some point to take care of these important projects.  I had even ordered replacement pinion gears, and had them on the shelf ready to go.  But the day never came, and it seemed like it wasn’t getting any closer.

As our business got busier and busier, and I added a few more employees to keep up with the workload, I found my self spending more and more time selling, designing, and generally making sure there was enough ready-for-production work to keep everyone busy each day.  And even though having a few additional employees should have meant I could spare one or two to work on the machine for a day, that isn’t the type of work my employees are trained to do.   So I would have had to spend the time showing them what to do, and then making sure the work was done correctly.   Eventually, I realized that I had put the work off for too long, as our cutting quality was starting to show signs of degrading, and bit life was suffering as well.  It was beyond time to replace the pinion gears (with the amount of cutting we do, I try to replace the gears at least annually, and we had gone about 18 months since the last change).  I finally realized that if I took the time to do the work in-house, either by myself or with the help of one or more of my employees, that it would cost as much in lost sales and production as the annual fee.

So I sent an e-mail to ShopBot, asking to be put on the calendar.  (In case you are wondering, I do not work for ShopBot, nor do I enjoy any discounts on products or services I buy from them.)  A brief e-mail exchange served to develop an agenda of what I hoped to accomplish, beyond the most basic maintenance.  A few weeks (and a credit card payment) later, Gary Campbell arrived one morning, ready to get to work.  I had arranged for most of my employees to be out on an installation, and made sure we had enough parts cut out so we could make do without the machine for a day.  After assessing the physical condition of our machine ( a well – worn 2004 PRT Alpha with dual Z axes), and the control computer (operating system, memory, installed programs, Windows settings, etc.) Gary brought in a bunch of tools and some supplies, and got right to work.  Within a few hours, with only minimal input from me, Gary had replaced all five pinion gears, and had checked and adjusted all the rollers, cleaned and greased the racks, and checked for any other problems.  He also quantified how badly our rails are worn from all the thousands of sheets of melamine and other projects we have cut over almost 8 years – I knew there was more wear in the center of the rails than at the ends, as would be expected, but I had not realized that the difference was close to 1/16 of an inch.  That might explain why we’ve had some issues with getting parts to cut consistently through over the entire area of the machine.

Once the basic maintenance work was complete, we were able to spend the rest of the day re-locating the control box on the wall, and moving the control computer’s CPU to a shelf next to the control box.  This allowed us to clean up a tangle of wires and eliminate several excess loops of both AC voltage and low-voltage wires.  Putting the CPU next to the control box also allowed me to eliminate an unnecessarily long USB cable, and install the spindle control card.   Along the way, we discussed a few potential upgrades and standard operating procedures, and had a long discussion about ramping values and how the way ShopBot handles ramping has changed over the years.  I learned a few things and appreciated the opportunity to talk face to face with another knowledgeable ShopBot operator.  A couple of days later, I received an e-mail from Gary summarizing what had been accomplished during his visit, the current state of our machine and it’s control computer, and a short list of recommended upgrades (I really need to consider replacing the rails with hardened rails if I want the machine to be able to keep cutting dozens of sheets of melamine every week – although the fact that we can still crank out parts every week even with that much wear on the rails speaks well of the machine).

All in all, I found the ShopBot Production Support program to be money well spent.  In a single day, we were able to get caught up on overdue maintenance, take care of most of the items on my ShopBot to-do list, evaluate the current state of the machine, and create a plan for future upgrades.  All without having to divert or train my own employees or spend a lot of my own time on the process.

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