Making the Leap

A typical project for us these days.

A typical project for Atlanta Closet & Storage Solutions

Sorry I haven’t been around much lately, but I thought I’d touch base for a minute while I finally have a chance.  I have been busy beyond belief for the last year or more, to where visiting the forum or writing has had to take a back seat to eating and sometimes sleeping.  My closet and storage business, Atlanta Closet & Storage Solutions, has picked up to where we have outgrown the home based shop, and we are in the middle of setting up a new shop with a new CNC machine a few miles away.  Yes, I will be replacing the Shopbot, at least for day-to-day production.  While my business has been Shopbot-based since my first foray into CNC, we have simply outgrown our current space and our current machine.  The timing is perfect, as I had already been looking at commercial spaces available in the area, and I’ve found a great space in a recently renovated building that not only allows manufacturing, but has a showroom area with offices up front.  It really couldn’t be much more perfect for us.

What has also been perfect has been the timing of each of my key employees contacting me at just the point in the growth of the business where I needed someone with their particular aptitude and personality to take over an aspect of the operation that was taking up too much of my time.  We now have on board a full-time designer/salesperson, who handles most of the in-home consultations and follow-up contact with the customers; a production manager who oversees the shop operations and does whatever is necessary to get the jobs processed on time; another full time person in the shop to handle the materials before and after parts come off the CNC; two full time installers, and a helper, and we recently added to the team a full-time CAD engineer to help get the jobs through the office and into production.  That’s nine including my wife (AKA the Vice-President), who manages the office and accounting functions, and myself.  It’s hard to believe that this has all come together at the same time, and that leads keep coming in and jobs keep going out on a daily basis.

Current Shop 1

Our current sheet processing setup – a bit cramped but we’re making it work.

So back to the machine.  My original intent was to just lease some space as reasonably as possible, and move everything over to the new space with the lowest expenditure possible for setup and new equipment.  The primary reasons for making the move included lack of access to a forklift for unloading our 3,500 pound bundles of 4×8 sheets of melamine, and lack of access to a dumpster for disposing of the 2,000 pounds of scraps, sawdust, and trash we somehow generate every several weeks, that we have to load onto our delivery truck and deliver to the local transfer station.  The fact is there is nothing wrong with the Shopbot, it keeps on cutting sheet after sheet after sheet all day long, and I’m sure it could have made the move without much more than a hiccup.  There are two game changers though – one is that our primary suppliers are bringing in more and more 5×8 sheets, including several new colors and textures, and stocking fewer and fewer colors in the 4×8 size.  Needless to say we have a problem cutting the 5×8 material on our 4×8 table.  Let’s just say it’s a good thing we still have the tablesaw and that it’s conveniently located inline with the Shopbot.  The other is that we finally reached the point where our machine simply can’t drill all those holes we need, and cut all those parts we need, as fast as we need them.  The breaking point could not have come at a more opportune time, as my production manager, William, and I were on a week-long tour to visit several machine manufacturers, including Shopbot headquarters in Durham NC.  I wanted to get an idea of what our upgrade options were, and it couldn’t be more fitting that that same week was the first week that I was genuinely worried that we might not be able to get all the material processed that would be needed to fill all the orders that had been promised by the end of the week.

The latest ShopBot PRSAlpha CNC with automatic tool changer

The latest ShopBot PRSAlpha CNC with automatic tool changer

In addition to Shopbot we visited three other manufacturers that are all located, or have major regional facilities, as close or closer to Atlanta than Shopbot’s headquarters in Durham, NC.  The size and level of sophistication of the respective sales and service departments range the gamut, and frankly ShopBot is (by design?) at the small end of the spectrum.  (For a very boring but more detailed report on our trip see here).  When you start looking at the larger (i.e. more expensive) machines, you start talking in multiples of the cost of a fully loaded ShopBot, and the maintenance costs over the life of the machine will likely add up to the cost of yet another ShopBot.  (You also have to consider much higher requirements for compressed air, dust collection, and electrical service, potentially making the total investment enough to buy a fairly decent house in many parts of the country.)  However, when you compare the production capacities of the various machine configurations, versus the cost of ownership, including the cost of the operators to load, unload, and maintain the machine, there is a point at which buying the more expensive machine makes sense.  I find myself approaching that point, and with a new shop to set up, there is a lot to be said for building for the long term and not having to go through this process again in a few years.  So I have decided to invest in a dedicated, nested-based, through-feed CNC sheet processing and machining center, complete with automated sheet in-feed, and automated part outfeed onto a giant conveyor belt.  Once a bundle of melamine sheets is loaded onto the infeed station, the operator will stand at the other end (45 feet away!) and pick up each part as it arrives, ready to be placed into the next machine (in our case, the edgebander).


Sounds simple, but it takes a lot of machine to make all that happen.  Still, it seems to be the direction many manufacturers are taking, automating as many of the unpleasant tasks as possible, and minimizing the need for relatively low-paid people doing repetitive jobs (or worse, having to pay relatively highly-paid people to do repetitive or otherwise unpleasant jobs).  Of course the same can be said about investing in CNC machinery in the first place, but once we are talking about thousands of sheets a year, the sheer volume of material to be handled becomes an issue.  In our case, the new machinery, combined with the space afforded by our new, larger shop, will allow us to produce several times the volume we currently put out, without having to hire any more people.

Atlanta Closet & Storage Solutions Production Cell

New Atlanta Closet & Storage Solutions Production Cell

In fact, the first question most people ask when I tell them about the new machinery, is whether I plan to let any of my employees go, and the answer is no, I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t have great employees that I can count on to make the move with me and learn how to operate the new equipment.  We’re going to need at least as many people to handle the flow of parts coming from the machine, and the flow of designs ready to be cut, that having such a beast necessitates.  Our one full-time shop employee, who was the most concerned about being replaced by a machine, will now have time to help with the deliveries and installations, making him all the more valuable.  The alternative to investing in automated equipment, for a growing company, is to hire additional employees, but if you compare the monthly cost of leasing and operating the equipment vs hiring another skilled or semi-skilled employee or two, there’s not much difference.  There are a few other reasons for making the leap to more fully automated machinery, not the least of which will be the ability to offer almost immediate turnaround times for most orders.

The old shop fits inside the new shop with room to spare.

The second question I get from most people who know me is ‘are you going to sell your ShopBot?’  The answer to that is also no, it would never occur to me to sell the ShopBot.  Even though I could probably get most of my money back out of it (if you don’t count my labor), I have a feeling I’m going to appreciate having a machine I can use for custom pieces or personal projects, where I can leave something set up on the machine for a while without interfering with daily production.  Not to mention it might be good to have a backup – just in case the inevitable happens.  The ShopBot is going to stay right where it is, in my soon-to-be home shop/man cave, hopefully to enjoy a long second (third?) career doing the kinds of projects it used to be known for, and I hope to maintain my place in the ShopBot family, albeit possibly with a less prominent presence on the forum.  I have to give credit to ShopBot, and my little machine in particular, for getting me in the game, and to the point where I can consider a larger machine.  I have to admit, while no one was watching, that I did a little ‘Rocky’ dance when I realized that I now own two CNC machines.  This could be interesting.




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