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Prototype Shop

CITIZEN F16

Titanium
Joined
May 2, 2021
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.

My customers led me to booking passage on the Titanic, the recession of 2008 was a disaster for me. I reinvented myself to survive as I would rather fight Mike Tyson with one arm tied behind my back than work for someone else.
Fortunately for me I don't hunt, fish, or golf. I can remodel the house and work till I drop and be happy.
 

Booze Daily

Titanium
Joined
Sep 18, 2015
Location
Ohio
I started my shop in 96. I was so far down the food chain that the dot com bubble didn’t hit me til 02. That year sucked.
08/09 was pretty good but I lost my last employee in Aug 09. 10 sucked but I just paid off the last of my machines and started focusing on other unneeded expenses.
Last year was the best year I had since 13.
This year is shaping up to be better yet.
 

CITIZEN F16

Titanium
Joined
May 2, 2021
I started my shop in 96. I was so far down the food chain that the dot com bubble didn’t hit me til 02. That year sucked.
08/09 was pretty good but I lost my last employee in Aug 09. 10 sucked but I just paid off the last of my machines and started focusing on other unneeded expenses.
Last year was the best year I had since 13.
This year is shaping up to be better yet.

Looks like you started just after me. I never felt the dot com bubble burst, my main customer at that time was a high end auto electric shop, he also repaired DC motors. He did quite a few high end stereo installs. I would say at the time I was 50-50 machining and fab work of my own design. Quite a bit of custom car work, sometimes I was in the main customer's shop more than mine. Those were some long days , but it paid well. I think it was funny how I went from working for a company doing mostly high end medical device work to someone turning dc motor rotors when I went on my own.
 

implmex

Titanium
Joined
Jun 23, 2002
Location
Vancouver BC Canada
Hi metal-ica:
You wrote:
"Sure, it's nice to have some super niche but it isn't that easy to find"

The thing about a niche is not that it has to be super exotic; it just has to be a pain point for your customers that you can have a stab at making better for them and others can't (or at least not easily).
So my niche came from the growing recognition that if an engineer wanted or needed something small and complex in this town, there really weren't any places he could go, and as I got better at doing, better at quoting and better at asserting myself, I also got more of the kind of customers who were loyal and well-behaved because they HAD to be if they wanted me to look at their stuff.

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

Yeah, I get it, and you could make the case that you're meeting the niche of "delivering Quality fast".
The problem with getting into commodity jobbing is that it's too often a race to the bottom for two reasons:
1) A competitor with deeper pockets can eat your lunch on delivery even if you are a better machinist...he can just throw more resources at the project.

2) Anybody with the tech can compete on this turf...the barrier to entry is pretty low now.
What used to take extraordinary skills to pull off is now a doddle to do, and it looks just as good coming off your Haas as it looks coming off my Haas.

So while I have the greatest respect for those willing to get themselves bashed about in the commodity jobbing world, it is an awfully hard thing to make into a business...probably the hardest thing in the whole "craftsmanship" gig.

Those who managed to find a product to make and promote have typically done much better than those who make for others...except when you got the little bastards by the balls and they HAVE to come to you because you're the only gig in town for their particular problems.

As you correctly point out, my specialization took years to build, but it was worth it, and I often don't even have to quote...nobody else will even look at it, and I've fed my family with my obsolescent low end toys for decades because of it.

Cheers

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

metal-ica

Aluminum
Joined
Jan 19, 2019
Marcus,

I agree... my point was it's hard to find that niche in the beginning and you may need to whore yourself out until you find it. It took you years to build your specialization....op's gonna have to do the same. My niche is machining specialized high-nickel alloys and I post-machine anneal in hydrogen in-house. Most shops can't or don't want to compete with me. It's the next best thing to having your own product. At least that's my perspective...cheer's
 

implmex

Titanium
Joined
Jun 23, 2002
Location
Vancouver BC Canada
Hi metal-ica:
I agree 100%, and you do make a good point.

But whoring yourself out and then buying a bunch of toys on credit and then being hoist by the petard of your own making sounds like a recipe for an unhappy life to me.
Dodging that bullet and looking for the niche early (even if you can't fully embrace it right away) at least keeps you clear eyed about where you want to go, and means you're less likely to want to kick the dog when you get home after another crappy day.

When every day is a shit day...life's pretty hard.
(That's why I got out of dentistry ...I just wasn't happy driving around in the slimy little hole for a living).

Cheers

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

SND

Diamond
Joined
Jan 12, 2003
Location
Canada
I did lots of prototype stuff the first few years, some of the projects were kinda cool but from a business aspect I don't miss it for one second and have zero interest to ever go back to it.

Always a last minute panic, working all night to get it done for the next day, almost always problems with drawings, weird unicorn material that you spend half the day trying to find, rush to get special tooling, always took 2-3 times longer than expected, no way to see far enough into the future to buy more equipment when you only have 1-2 weeks work ahead of you. Running good repeat production with always a 3-6month backlog is where its at. I make more in a quarter now than I did in a year doing protocrap and the margins are also way better, much less wasted time, no quoting, etc.

And don't think that just because you start with their proto work that you'll get into their production work later on, usually you won't see the real production work so that you won't be busy when the next we need this last week new idea proto job comes along.

Anyway, back to work, Sunday's aren't just for picking stones...
 

Doug

Diamond
Joined
Dec 16, 2002
Location
Pacific NW
..................................

And don't think that just because you start with their proto work that you'll get into their production work later on, usually you won't see the real production work so that you won't be busy when the next we need this last week new idea proto job comes along.

Anyway, back to work, Sunday's aren't just for picking stones...

If my customers remember me for anything I'd like to think it'll be for my prototyping work.

I had a number of prototypes that eventually turned in production. The customers asked why I didn't want to quote production... Simple, I was sure I couldn't be competitive with faster machines and didn't want it anyway.

For production work I would have had to quote. My prototyping was strictly time and material. Too much competition in production work, no matter how low you quote somebody will always underbid you.
 

William Payne

Aluminum
Joined
May 29, 2016
I’ve said if I stick in this trade I want my own shop. But I didn’t say that day one. I had been working in the trade a while before I started thinking that. It took time in the trade to see what I was good at and see and gain experience in something I could specialise in also see the demand for that for me to start thinking about any ideas of self employment.

I do a lot of welding in my job and it’s too easy with cheap welders available for people to buy one who have never welded and suddenly they decide they are going to offer welding services to people.

All I can say is if you are going to start a business offering a service make sure you have the skills to back it up. In welding there are lots of certifications. They aren’t to say that a certified welder is better than a non certified one but it gives customers the piece of mind that you have passed the tests to show your skills are up to standard.

It’s not much different in machining. You have to know what you are doing.
 

SND

Diamond
Joined
Jan 12, 2003
Location
Canada
If my customers remember me for anything I'd like to think it'll be for my prototyping work.

I had a number of prototypes that eventually turned in production. The customers asked why I didn't want to quote production... Simple, I was sure I couldn't be competitive with faster machines and didn't want it anyway.

For production work I would have had to quote. My prototyping was strictly time and material. Too much competition in production work, no matter how low you quote somebody will always underbid you.

There's a few types of production work. Production of parts that you can throw into a bucket from halfway across the shop and have it still be good will rarely be worth getting into. Production of fancy stuff that has to be perfect 100% of the time, that can be decent. I still do some 1 off stuff, but it's proven designs with a good process that we just make 2-3 of per year and that's usually fine.
If that ever slows down though I'll focus on my own products.
 

SND

Diamond
Joined
Jan 12, 2003
Location
Canada
As to " Time and materials " for prototype work, or any work, better be real damn sure its a customer you trust that they're gonna pay before sinking a pile of $ and time in it. Pretty much everything I did was quoted and PO's upfront. Unknown customers was/is COD, but that's largely been weeded out.

There's a good market and an apparent shortage people/shops who can do very high quality low/mid quantity production work (aka proven designs/no BS) On that work if you're bang on 100% of the time, no rework/NCR, no seal faces or finishes that look like they were cut by a chipmunk with a chisel, you don't always have to be the cheapest guy around.
 

Doug

Diamond
Joined
Dec 16, 2002
Location
Pacific NW
As to " Time and materials " for prototype work, or any work, better be real damn sure its a customer you trust that they're gonna pay before sinking a pile of $ and time in it. Pretty much everything I did was quoted and PO's upfront. Unknown customers was/is COD, but that's largely been weeded out.

..................................

Agreed, I did my best to check out new customers. Some, though, like Boeing, Spacelabs Medical and Microsoft didn't need checking out, their reputation preceded them. No quoting on the vast, vast majority of my work because because to a large extent the parts were an unknown (like trial and error to get something to work). I never did COD, I thought it was an insult to a customer and reflected badly on my business needing cash up front.


Yes, I know it sounds like a dream to have the customers I did. Not only me, I worked closely for 20 some years with another prototype shop that had the same experiences I did with customers. On the other hand I ran into a number of shops that completely f'ed up everything they touched. Unfortunately the latter are the most common.
 

jccaclimber

Hot Rolled
Joined
Nov 22, 2015
Location
San Francisco
I think this works better in stable places. One of my previous employers, the small hardware wing of a 30k employee company, was easy about paying suppliers. One day they decided to sell a division and lay off most of the employees with no notice. They pretty much tried to wash their hands of billing that day. The new place of course didn’t want to look at bills for work before they close date. A buddy with a shop got stuck with a $40k unpaid bill. It did eventually get paid in full after a few months of arguing, but it was far more hassle than he deserved in the mean time.
 

implmex

Titanium
Joined
Jun 23, 2002
Location
Vancouver BC Canada
Hi Doug:
You wrote:
"No quoting on the vast, vast majority of my work because because to a large extent the parts were an unknown (like trial and error to get something to work). I never did COD, I thought it was an insult to a customer and reflected badly on my business needing cash up front.


Yes, I know it sounds like a dream to have the customers I did. Not only me, I worked closely for 20 some years with another prototype shop that had the same experiences I did with customers. On the other hand I ran into a number of shops that completely f'ed up everything they touched."


My experience with getting this to work is to find a way to offer the potential customer confidence you can do what they need and that you will not hose them down in the process.
I have always started relationships like these with a good sit down heart to heart in which we talk about what they want from me and where they hope to go.
I point out the realities of what they are wishing for from my perspective and try to help give them an intelligent and realistic roadmap forward in a general sort of way.
I do this so we are all aligned with our expectations from the relationship.

I pull no punches here and I do not bullshit my way into their hearts...I do my best to help them articulate their need and to apprise them of what their need is going to take without getting into the weeds.

The second thing I do is to give them confidence I can do their work, in a way they can appreciate at a gut level.
They get a shop tour (of course) and I put some of the prototypes I've done in the past into their hands to play with...ones that don't violate any confidentiality agreements:
I have a particularly sexy one that is almost irresistible to play with...it's a little right angle drive surgical screwdriver I developed decades ago for implant dentistry, and it just feels SOOO nice to turn the knob and watch the little screwdriver tip turn in circles.
I have a couple assembled and waiting for whenever I conduct these introductory interviews.
Never fails to impress even though it's not actually all that impressive from a "How did you MAKE that" perspective.

I've also got a smattering of ones they will likely have trouble sourcing elsewhere...little teeny tiny bits you can put on your finger to show off several at a time.

The last thing I do is to give them a mechanism to retain control over their costs.
I always offer them a fixed price contract to begin development, circumscribed by a pre-paid sum they're willing to part with in order to begin.
We decide together roughly what the scope of work will be (usually design work or evaluation of their own designs) and once I've spent their money, we have a review together.
They get to decide if we continue down the path and under what conditions...typically I bill biweekly or monthly and I give them an accurate time log.
A few want to stay with the original setup but most relax when they find out I'm not there to screw them.
It's very rare that they abandon the project after this gentle entry into it: my customers mostly appreciate my work properly and I do my best for them.
I trust them as I demand they trust me, and I've been screwed once because of it (major screwing...twenty grand worth of screwing)

There are things I do NOT do:
I don't bullshit them.
I don't screw them over
I don't clutch the job if there are better resources out there for parts or all of it.
I don't hit them with bad surprises: either time delays or cost overruns.
I don't fight them over design decisions...I point out what they imply and then I offer alternatives and let them choose.

So far this has worked pretty well for me, but I had to spend time at it to get independently prosperous enough not to have to be greedy for THEIR gig.
After all, when you're dating, there's nothing that turns a lovely young thing off worse than the signal of desperation.
Business is like that too...if you want it too badly they can smell it and it doesn't smell nice.

Cheers

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

Garwood

Diamond
Joined
Oct 10, 2009
Location
Oregon
Marcus, that account of how you handle this stuff should be mandatory reading at the top of this forum. It's so simple, but doing what you laid out there can be impossibly hard when you're starting out.
 

Covenant MFG

Plastic
Joined
May 26, 2021
Location
Greater Sacramento
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.

Yeah the grass is definitely always greener. The "You know how you make a small fortune in X industry? You start with a large one!" joke is one I've heard from just about everyone in every business. At some point you gotta stop looking for easier money and just dig in where you're at.
 

SND

Diamond
Joined
Jan 12, 2003
Location
Canada
Delivering "Fast" or " Yesterday " all the time, means you'll never see more than a few days to maybe 2-3 weeks into the future.
I'm glad there's still a few of you who enjoy that.
 

Doug

Diamond
Joined
Dec 16, 2002
Location
Pacific NW
Delivering "Fast" or " Yesterday " all the time, means you'll never see more than a few days to maybe 2-3 weeks into the future.
I'm glad there's still a few of you who enjoy that.

Are you suggesting that those us who did prototyping only saw a few weeks into the future?

If so, it wasn't true for me. Example: a customers was working on a dermabrasion device, brushes peeling skin. We made brush test samples from tooth brushes, scrub brushes, hair brushes, whatever we could find. Then onto the high frequency motor assembly which we built while participating in design meetings. Maybe three months total work over a 6 month period. All of this was by verbal requests, no formal PO's. Nothing was especially "fast" or "yesterday". Pretty typical how it was, we worked with customers not for them. The product is on the market as the Clarisonic. That was one of a bunch of projects with that customer over 15 years.
 

implmex

Titanium
Joined
Jun 23, 2002
Location
Vancouver BC Canada
Hi Doug:
You wrote:
"If so, it wasn't true for me. Example: a customers was working on a dermabrasion device, brushes peeling skin. We made brush test samples from tooth brushes, scrub brushes, hair brushes, whatever we could find. Then onto the high frequency motor assembly which we built while participating in design meetings. Maybe three months total work over a 6 month period. All of this was by verbal requests, no formal PO's. Nothing was especially "fast" or "yesterday". Pretty typical how it was, we worked with customers not for them. The product is on the market as the Clarisonic. That was one of a bunch of projects with that customer over 15 years."

Yeah, that's pretty much been my experience too.
I look for Alpha customers (those who do not have designs yet, and are looking for a shop to be "Their Development Shop" for weeks, months or years.

I designed and built for a respirator manufacturer for 6 years on their projects, I worked for a year for the bowel surgery simulator guys, I worked for 3 years for the dental implant guys developing an aligner (I even got a Medical Device Innovation Award for that one), I've worked for two years now for the robotics guys and I've worked for two decades for the freaky sex toy guys (lots of innovation there!).

All were cost plus projects run under the agreements I laid out in post #34.

The ones who screwed the pants off me were among the first...a shyster outfit supposedly developing a "for real" exoskeleton suit like Robert Downey Junior wore in whatever those movies were.
They were scamming the SRED grant system we have up here in Canada, and they scammed me too.
They were the wake-up call to make me mend my ways and demand skin in the game before trusting too fondly, as SND points out in post #31
I learned from that error...believe me, I learned!

So prototyping can be a good, stable gig if you get the relationship right from the beginning.
What my customers are doing (and I make a point of telling them so) is that they are renting a fully equipped machine shop complete with a wizened old gnome who knows how to work everything in it, thinks beyond just the part, and loves to help, for a relatively cheap rent compared to what they'd be paying to build and staff their own facility.

They know they don't have to do all the detailed engineering up front, so they can iterate quickly and learn from their prototypes without spending weeks specifying everything down to the last detail.

That last thing is my justification for demanding time and materials contracts for these kinds of projects...just like you with the bristles, it's impossible to quote these things, but somebody with skills imagination, and the desire to see success is vitally necessary to make it go.

People like that are hard to hire and expensive to equip with the resources they will need...it's WAY cheaper for a customer to hire someone like you or me than to try to build the capability themselves...one of our tasks is to show them how true that is, so they appreciate properly, the value they're getting.

Cheers

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

Doug

Diamond
Joined
Dec 16, 2002
Location
Pacific NW
What Marcus wrote is a perfect description of what I did too. And to those who want to do this type work (at least the way it worked for me) you have to be in an area where there's a thriving product development atmosphere. You can't do it remotely from Podunk City, South Dakota.


"So prototyping can be a good, stable gig if you get the relationship right from the beginning.
What my customers are doing (and I make a point of telling them so) is that they are renting a fully equipped machine shop complete with a wizened old gnome who knows how to work everything in it, thinks beyond just the part, and loves to help, for a relatively cheap rent compared to what they'd be paying to build and staff their own facility."
 








 
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