Dividers and Manufacturing: Now With More WORDS!
Posted on 04 June 2017
“I could rival his work with access to a CNC mill.”
— forum comment c.2007 regarding a Wayne Anderson infill plane.
At this point, I don’t think it’s news that the Improved Pattern Dividers are giving us some (ahem) challenges. Chris posted last week about this, plus the fact that we’re likely to increase their price by a significant margin. It’s not a move we take lightly.
I’m going to delve into the reasons why in some detail here. I could give a bunch of feel good reasons why it’s the right thing to do for our customers, and how we want to operate transparently, and a bunch of other crap that – true or not – is more about manipulation than altruism.
The truth is simple, really: I like to talk about that sort of thing. It’s a perfect chance to explain some of what goes into this sort of tool, and why I think the sort of work we’re doing matters. Spoiler: It’s not because laying out dovetails is one of the great challenges confronting mankind.
I’ll talk more about the design process (months of work) developing the dividers later on. But first, let me take a stab at the first of several questions we receive.
Why don’t you just order more?
This gets to the heart of widespread misconceptions about production machining and CNC in general. The impression is that the work for CNC is all in the programming. After that, you load your raw material and press start. Then you come back later and pick up your finished parts. Reload material, and go.
It’s not a surprising belief, really. Most manufacturers tend to reinforce this idea – it makes them look as competent as their factory loadout. And lord knows that the machine and tooling manufacturers are constantly presenting this sort of ease as “finally here.”
The truth, of course, is a lot more complicated.
Leaving aside the competence and experience of the operators – and that is a spectacularly wide range – the first problem is simply the capacity of the machine. Before you begin making parts, there are a host of decisions to be made about quantities and timing. How many will you need, and how often? What sort of inventory do you need on hand, and how fast do you need to get parts once you order them?
In our case, the dividers are a fairly expensive product for a niche market. It’s also an expensive and difficult product to make, and there were a host of other factors specific to us (more on that, and on the cost and difficulty, to come) as well.
In the end, making these on a 3-axis vertical machining center (VMC – the most basic and common CNC mill in the manufacturing world) was the smart play. And once that decision was made, there were some incredibly robust limitations on the time-to-produce.
Specifically – the dividers require three distinct machine setups (plus an additional setup for initial stock prep) and fairly robust fixturing plates for each setup. That means there’s a lot of expense required for this means of manufacture.
This all adds up to a bottleneck in time-to-produce. And widening that bottleneck is not simple or inexpensive. It always means either additional equipment, or shifting to faster machines. Both are expensive propositions – and add plenty of risk for us, and also for the shop doing the work. Which means significant costs in resource management, in fixturing and programming, and in training.
In other words – an expensive product just got even more expensive, and a lot riskier.
If you’re sure that you can sustain those new production levels, then this usually makes sense. But if you’re looking at a tool with really high initial sales, which later slow down (which is quite common for tools), then those costs often are NOT covered by the fact that you sell so many more.
The overall summary is this: Changing the way we make these dividers carries a lot of costs, and a lot of risks. We’re not opposed to risks when they are smart. We bet a really nice American house worth of capital on the idea that we understood the problems with production better than the shops bidding on the job, and we set about learning the processes ourselves. That’s a big bet – but for us, it was a smart one.
Adding another pile of costs to the dividers at this point because demand is currently slaughtering supply, though, looks like a loser to us. So we’re not doing it.
In the world of conventional business wisdom, we may seem out to lunch. We’re risking angering customers here, and we should just take out a high-interest short-term loan to get dividers in front of you immediately. But business wisdom is also predicated on the idea that you (customers) are mindless buying machines with the attention span of a cocaine-addled fruit fly.
We are dedicated to doing business differently than the norm. We don’t believe in slick marketing, we don’t think the customer is stupid, or should be conned, and we don’t think short-term profits are king of anything but small minds. We refuse outside capital in part because it interferes with focusing on the long-term. And we’re playing the long game, because we think it’s crazy not to.
I think most of us in woodworking and tool making secretly wish the business world worked differently. We’re betting on it, in fact.
But the problem with running a business differently is that it often runs – differently. And sometimes that’s frustrating to customers. But we’re betting that the people who love the craft in the way we do will understand that.
Still to come:
- What exactly makes these so “difficult” to make? Why not make them simpler? Are you (Raney) an idiot?
- More about how we design, and why: Plus, 40 percent More PHILOSOPHY – FREE!
- Do you love the dividers but can’t embezzle that much money from the discretionary fund? Just for you: a full tutorial on how to make them from scratch by hand. Cause I’m a people person.