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Prototype Shop

Amarble6

Plastic
Joined
Mar 25, 2022
Hi all,
I'm looking to start my own business. As a current manufacturing engineer with a love of machining, I'd really like to run some sort of shop out of my garage with a CNC mill and/or lathe. I have some basic experience with both and some CAD/CAM experience as well, although I definitely need some more practice before going full professional with it.

Right now the idea I'm toying with is specializing in prototypes and one offs for other small businesses. Maybe some small scale production runs as well. Trouble is, I'm not sure how viable of a plan that is and how much work is out there for a shop like that. Does anyone have any input/suggestions? Thanks in advance!
 

gustafson

Diamond
Joined
Sep 4, 2002
Location
People's Republic
Shops who do the production work will usually get the prototype, least 30 years ago when I thought I would be a prototype shop

There is work out there.
But will it be enough to bother with....
 

implmex

Titanium
Joined
Jun 23, 2002
Location
Vancouver BC Canada
Hi Amarble6:
I run a one man prototype shop, and have done so since 1998.
Before that I was a dentist, and before that I was a moldmaker.

I've seen a lot of changes to our industry over the years and have the following to offer:
I started when manual mills and rotary tables were the kind of equipment everyone used to make both simple and complex parts.
If you had a pantograph you were one of a kind, out here in my community.
This was all manual equipment, so the industry was skills dependent in a way that it is not anymore.

So you differentiated yourself by your skills, and if you got really good at a subset of those skills, you could demand a premium for having them and earn a really good living.

Then CNC milling came along: for the first years only the deep pocketed could afford it and there was no support structure around, so the industry was still skills dependent, but in a different way with different skills.
Very quickly nobody gave a shit about whether you were good on the rotary table anymore, so that skill set became obsolete.

Then CAD and CAM grew up and suddenly all the hand coders became obsolete.

Then Haas came along and now small shops could get into CNC milling and CNC turning, and all the first gen CNC shops started having competition.

Then 3D printing came along and all the manual plastic prototyping went away.

Then 3D metal printing came along, and now CNC milling and turning are under a new threat.

It all sounds bleak, but I still haul out my turntable once in a while...I just can't depend on it for my bread and butter anymore.

This is increasingly true for all established technology, so if you hope to differentiate yourself by the goodies you buy, good luck with that...it's becoming increasingly irrelevant.
You will be distinguished only by the things you can do that others can't.
I chose miniature and sub miniature machining to get good at, and I struggled in the beginning like anyone without experience.
I ate a lot of freebie hours because I'd underquoted, I fucked up a lot of stuff, and I had to admit defeat more than once, even though I'm a stubborn old fart.

Now after about 45 years in this business in one form or another, I am known around here as the crazy dentist with the machine shop who can do weird shit, especially small weird shit, and that is what's still feeding my family.
I have a broad array of toys and I can take a good stab at most things.

So how viable is it to start a prototype shop now?
It's hard...harder than it was.
Some things are much easier...you can throw money at them in a way you couldn't before and you can get a capability that's truly amazing.
Problem is, anyone with money can do the same, so you can't differentiate yourself that way.

Some things are much harder...you need way deeper pockets to be competitive, and your investments in the gear have a much shorter lifespan as technology marches along.
My 1947 Monarch lathe is just as good a manual lathe as it was in 1947, but my 2011 vintage wire EDM is an obsolete dog compared to what's available now, and we won't even talk about my vintage 1996 sinker EDM.

So in my opinion, to marshal all of the decisions to stay at the forefront of tech and still be profitable, means you'd be better off with an MBA than a tech degree or a trade certification, if you need to stand out in the new game and continually spend the coin to update.

Another story from my experience...I've spent the last couple of years doing development work for an up and coming robotics company.
I've watched them grow like crazy.
Increasingly I cannot service their machining needs anymore as they move down their development path: their stuff increasingly demands tech I don't have, and as their time lines shrink, they are increasingly going to big Chinese firms that can turn a project in weeks instead of months, by throwing twenty guys on it each with a half million dollar Hermle to play with.
So my role with them is changing...I am much more a consultant now, than a soup to nuts prototype shop, even though they still need me to make the stuff others refuse to try.
This change has happened within two years.
My relationship with them is as solid as it can be in the modern era, but if I still had machine payments to make I'd be pissed and scared.

This is exactly the same experience I had with the bowel surgery simulator guys I consulted for before the robot guys.

This is your future too.

So think about what you can offer that is unique and enduring...the ability to make chips is not going to be among them.

Cheers

Marcus
Implant Mechanix • Design & Innovation > HOME
Vancouver Wire EDM -- Wire EDM Machining
 

Kingbob

Hot Rolled
Joined
Dec 1, 2009
Location
Louisiana
We are a small family niche market shop that I could run out of a garage (wouldn't want to)so as an addendum from Marcus' wise words = Another path to what you are looking to do would be end product expertise.
A good example would be a firearms engineer opening a small prototyping shop or say a dentists with machining experience opening a prototyping machine shop serving the medical implant industry:D. If you have but can't compete on your machining skills then you must compete with your knowledge of the industries you serve.
People and companies are always willing to pay to make their headaches someone else's headache, this has been my family's guiding principle for the last 43 years that we've been in business.
 

jccaclimber

Hot Rolled
Joined
Nov 22, 2015
Location
San Francisco
A friend of mine opened a prototype shop here in the SF Bay Area in the fall of 2020. He has enough work that he now has 3 apprentice guys running around the shop making parts. Why? Because he had a ton of contacts with development engineers (read: customers with funds) before he started the shop. He's a good machinist with a variety of equipment, but the main reasons we use him are that he's very nice to work with and gets everything done on a very short timeline. Around 2 weeks is standard and 3 is a long lead part unless there's something really unusual about it. Contrast that with an equally priced but higher quality prototype shop I know but haven't ordered parts from in years. They are always 6 weeks out.

If you want to be a prototype shop find out what your market (local, not local?) has as pain points other than cost, and make sure it's an area you can comfortably compete on a long term basis.
 

Doug

Diamond
Joined
Dec 16, 2002
Location
Pacific NW
Hi all,
I'm looking to start my own business. As a current manufacturing engineer with a love of machining, I'd really like to run some sort of shop out of my garage with a CNC mill and/or lathe. ....................

Right now the idea I'm toying with is specializing in prototypes and one offs for other small businesses. Maybe some small scale production runs as well. Trouble is, I'm not sure how viable of a plan that is and how much work is out there for a shop like that. ....................

Sounds exactly like me 35 years ago (retired now). I have a degree in ME that helped snag some customers. It took me a couple years to get to the prototyping only stage. I started with manual machines, a CNC lathe after a few months then a CNC mill, this was at a time when not many one man shops had CNC. Over the years I got grinding equipment, press brake, shear. My goal was to provide as much of the prototyping services in house so the customers didn't have to shop around (and maybe find lower prices elsewhere).

I did everything wrong at the start, low prices to attract customers, did some work for free, free design help, whatever it took to get connected with good customers. I did all the things that are now described as a race to the bottom and somehow it worked out.

I'm in Seattle. At the time I started there were at least a dozen store front machine shops where anybody could walk in with their projects. I believe every one of them is gone now. The only ones left are the big shops that aren't interested in small projects and have very high shop rates. If someone asked me where to get a small project done I wouldn't have a clue now.

Seattle is flooded with big tech and lots and lots of deep pocketed retirees from tech wanting to develop their product ideas. So, I'd say yes to a prototype startup in Seattle. Utah, I know nothing about, does it have tech basis to support new product development? Are there prototype shops in your area?
 

triumph406

Titanium
Joined
Sep 14, 2008
Location
ca
Hi all,
I'm looking to start my own business. As a current manufacturing engineer with a love of machining, I'd really like to run some sort of shop out of my garage with a CNC mill and/or lathe. I have some basic experience with both and some CAD/CAM experience as well, although I definitely need some more practice before going full professional with it.

Right now the idea I'm toying with is specializing in prototypes and one offs for other small businesses. Maybe some small scale production runs as well. Trouble is, I'm not sure how viable of a plan that is and how much work is out there for a shop like that. Does anyone have any input/suggestions? Thanks in advance!

Do not give up your day job. Start it as a part time after hours enterprise. See if you actually like machining as a business. Having basic experience isn't enough.

I had a part time shop, and by the time I went full time (big f'ing mistake) I had already accumalated 2 cnc mills, cnc lathe, edm sinker, 2 manual lathes, 2BP's, and probably 1-2000# of angle plates, sine plates, tooling etc etc

--------------------------------------

To be successfull I would think at a minimum you need a 4020 mill with a 4th axis, cnc lathe with 20"+ of Z travel and Tailstock. A BP, manual lathe with min 40" c2c. and then all the req'd tooling. At that point you can quote and run maybe 90% of stuff that comes your way.

----------------------------------------

And don't even think of going down this road until you have customers who will give you work consistantly I haven't had to solicit work in 25 years, it's always come to me. When that stops happeneing i'm a f'd monkey.
 

Covenant MFG

Plastic
Joined
May 26, 2021
Location
Greater Sacramento
I'm pretty fresh (less than a year in) but things are going generally well, haven't lost money, and on average profiting pretty nicely making about as much in the 20 hrs I work on the side as I do the 40 hrs for the day job. That money goes right into savings for a bigger machine later though, so I'm not really paying myself yet.

So a few things that so far are working so far:

1. Figure out how to minimize overhead at first. I paid cash for a small haas toolroom mill, and I've got it parked in a corner of a warehouse belonging to a good friend and business owner. I'm making enough now to afford rent no problem, but the first few months would have been a scramble. I'm also doing this part time- have been a full time machinist for nearly three years, and doing this on the side. If I get no sales I'm not bankrupt. If I quote a job at 20 hours and it takes me 200, so long as I make the due date I've only gained experience and lost some sleep, nothing worse.

2. Talk to people, be a people person, be easy to work with. Machinists and engineers aren't people people usually, so gotta get over that. Be friendly and know how to strike up conversations and show interest in what other people have going on. I've got a number of great customers by just chatting with people and getting random referrals, though directly asking for work has worked pretty well too.

3. Underbidding is fine, but being on time and in spec is king. I've got only a teeny bit of overhead, the cash is going right back into savings for the business anyway, and I like the work. So, I can underbid people without going to the poorhouse. Yes that's a "race to the bottom" but as an underdog you do have to be vicious to get in the door. You can get in with a decent price, but you stay in by delivering in spec parts on or way ahead of time every time, and once you have that trust they throw money at you because they know that if they give the job to you, it will be right and it will be on time.


4. Buy ONLY what you need to get the job done efficiently and well. No wish list tools, and no "well I'll have to buy it at some point anyway" stuff. It's true that the tooling you'll buy is at least the same as the machine cost, BUT there's no rule that says you have to buy it all at once and be a fully stocked shop in order to start quoting jobs. Buy as you go: if it's a pretty standard tool you'll likely use again, don't charge extra in the quote but make sure what you're getting paid will at least cover the cost of that tool. Now you have cash in the bank to afford to quote bigger jobs that require more tooling. And bigger, and so on.

5. Controversial and probably bad advice in most cases but it's working for me: I say YES to any job I can make money on right now. Later on I'll niche down, but for now I'm doing cheap dirtbike washers one week and a test fixture for aerospace valves the next. Prototype schmototype.
Am I confident I can make it to spec (on time)? Will they pay enough to make my hourly rate? Can I cover cost of tooling and material with cash up front? If I scrap everything can I take the hit to remake it all? If yes then I take the job. Only works if you're small, low overhead, and can cushion the blow if it turns out bad. Niching down works when you know what niche is profitable and that you have an advantage. Until then you're just another guy with a machine in his garage, and a businessman looking for what will pay, now what might pay.
You only know for sure what's a good market once you've shipped parts and the money clears your account.
 

William Payne

Aluminum
Joined
May 29, 2016
I am not trying to sound critical but what concerns me about these threads is that often they are started by people without much experience in what they are wanting to do and also tend to want to do something really niche and specialised. I personally would consider prototyping to be quite specialised. If you had multiple years cnc machining under your belt it would be a very different story.

I do a little bit of specialty welding out of my garage at home, but I can only do that because I did that work and saw the demand for it in my day job for a number of years first.

If you want to start a business that is awesome but jumping into something you are not experienced in is risky.

You could maybe do runs of relatively basic production parts while increasing your skill set.

Honestly you say you are a manufacturing engineer, could you start a business doing that for people as a consultant or something just to get started?

Think of it like this, if someone went out tomorrow and brought a pair of pliers and some screwdrivers and said they were going to start an electrical business but all the experience they had was changing a light switch it is not going to realistically work. You have to have an acceptable level of experience.
 
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mhajicek

Titanium
Joined
May 11, 2017
Location
Minneapolis, MN, USA
Think of it like this, if someone went out tomorrow and brought a pair of pliers and some screwdrivers and said they were going to start an electrical business but all the experience they had was changing a light switch it is not going to realistically work. You have to have an acceptable level of experience.

Or buy a rifle, a plate carrier, night vision goggles, and some airsoft web gear and think you're a soldier.
 

Ox

Diamond
Joined
Aug 27, 2002
Location
West Unity, Ohio
Do people really think that though? I'm sure some military guys would have a problem with that.


I am quite sure that there are oodles of those guys in battle at this very time, and apparently dooing a remarkable job of it too.



----------------------

Think Snow Eh!
Ox
 

mhajicek

Titanium
Joined
May 11, 2017
Location
Minneapolis, MN, USA
I am quite sure that there are oodles of those guys in battle at this very time, and apparently dooing a remarkable job of it too.



----------------------

Think Snow Eh!
Ox

If you're defending your homeland, you go to war with what you've got. I'm referring to the boogaloo kids that signed up to go overseas and play hero, then chickened out and came back, or the Instagram warriors who posted pictures of their unit's basecamp on social media, allowing them to get located and shelled out the next morning. Not all "help" is helpful.

The point is, a rookie is going to have a hard go in the deep end of the pool. Not to say it can't happen, but starting a business in something you don't have a lot of experience in will have a very low chance of success unless you have enough resources to keep throwing at it until you develop that experience.
 

Ox

Diamond
Joined
Aug 27, 2002
Location
West Unity, Ohio
LOL!

That was especially true in the 70's and early 80's fer sure.
Plenty'a judge offered "Door A" or "Door B" to young fella's at that time.


On the other hand, a kid a grade ahead of me went to the service straight outta skewl to git into their Nuc program.
Not quite fullfilling Garwood's requirements. ;)



------------------------

Think Snow Eh!
Ox
 

metal-ica

Aluminum
Joined
Jan 19, 2019
I love Marcus' post but I disagree with him.

Sure, it's nice to have some super niche but it isn't that easy to find. Your experiences over the years may lead you into that.

I feel like there is so few people wanting/willing to do quick turn proto typing that that's a niche unto itself.

Get a decent mill and lathe in you garage and build a reputation of delivering quality fast and the work will be there.



PS - I find it awesome that a dentist wanted to become a machinist. Whenever I'm at my dentist he's always asking me about my business and complaining about his.
 

Booze Daily

Titanium
Joined
Sep 18, 2015
Location
Ohio
When I started my shop I knew what direction I wanted to go but decided I would go in whichever direction my customers lead me. After going a few different directions I ended up where I wanted to be anyways.
 








 
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