32mm manual vs NBM setups

Will any efficiency be gained by adding high-tech equipment to a small shop? July 24, 2002

I am starting a 32mm shop, primarily producing kitchens and commercial casework. I have investigated a true32 "manual" setup and now am looking into NBM setups. Ideally, I would like to remain a skilled two-person operation. I like the idea of designing and programming a router for nesting, followed by edgebanding, horizontal boring and assembly. If I thought I could successfully produce high-end custom kitchens (two to six per month) using two people and the above setup, I would further enjoy the flexibility the router would offer for other applications, such as closet systems, solid surface, carving, millwork, and proprietary modeling. Am I fooling myself about the efficiency of using the router for my main product, i.e. kitchens? Am I overly enamored with the notion of "high technology?"

Forum Responses
From contributor H:
No matter how high tech you go, you will only be as fast as your slowest step in the process. Sooner or later someone has to physically do it. Cabinets don't assemble, install hardware, finish and install themselves. You could easily produce more parts in one day than your one man could assemble in a week. If you did two complete kitchens in a month with just the two of you, you would be doing very well. My definition of complete is all parts, mouldings, doors, accessories, countertops and punch list of "minor usuals", as I call them.

I think if you gave up coffee breaks, lunch, dinner and sleeping you might get four or five done. And if you're outsourcing your doors, you can forget your schedule and adopt your supplier's.

From the original questioner:
Your point is well taken. As general contractors, we install an average kitchen in thirty man hours. Using other contractors as a major sales channel, I would expect to install 50% of the kitchens we produce.

In any event, what do you think about using a router cell to produce kitchen cabinets? Some would say go slider, bander, groover, borer, etc, finish; others say slider/vertical, p2p, bander, etc. I'm asking for opinions on router, borer, bander, etc. I know this depends on various elements of componentry and construction. Who out there uses the router as the primary cell machine? Maybe it's just personal preference, if installation is the constraint.

Who uses a CNC router or P2P for low to moderate levels of production? I say low to moderate because it will be our first year producing cabinets in a new shop (8600 sq.ft.)

To answer the original question: Yes, you can do that. My guess it that you will need some deep pockets to get started. As pointed out, there is still work to be done by someone. Some days I get a lot done and some I don't. It would be nice if I could just make it and someone else could assemble, finish and install. It might be they could cut and machine as well. I would just collect money...

I outsource about 30% of my doors and so far, the manufacturer has been good. Turnaround time is usually 10 days or less. I have a hard time producing a kitchen in less than that time when added to the current work on the floor.

From contributor H:
The problem with outsourcing is not slow delivery. A good supplier will provide doors in about 10 days, plus or minus. So you can build boxes till the proverbial cows come home. But it won't take 10 days unless it's a big kitchen. So you wait for the doors. You wait for hardware, for finishes to dry. Maybe the sub who is installing can't get there the next day. Everything takes time. In the end, things can't be done much faster than a human can accomplish them. And what about quality? Where do we trade it for time and money? We all have to eat - not just today, but tomorrow, too.

The router will require two things. More money, which may in turn get you more money, and more men, which will in turn cost you more money.

We have an entry-level router ($100K) that we've used for 3 years. We don't do as much nesting as I had thought we would. The router can detail more parts in a day than several men can assemble and complete into finished product. You will need a system to edge bore and assemble. I'd love to have a Ganomat bore/glue/dowel machine and case clamp, but we can't afford them, so we use Confirmats (they work but take more labor). I think you will find that your investment becomes too great for a two-man shop to support. What does your business plan look like - marketing, finance, cash flow analysis? Might work? But I'd get some good experienced help first (not a machinery seller!).

Why not subcontract the entire cutting operation? My shop only cuts for other people. We manufacture and assemble virtually nothing. My customers get their parts before the doors arrive and they spend the time doing assembly and finishing. If the parts are cut wrong, I pay for it, not the end user.

From contributor E:
I too have a job shop and I don't make finished products - only components for my customers to assemble into whatever it is they make. I encourage my customers and prospects to consider the benefits of the time my service can save them to assemble, install, service, sell and manage their business.

Also, a CNC router or P2P takes space, money and at least one skilled person to make it work. My customers save many thousands of dollars every month by *not* having invested in that equipment. They do pay me, but substantially less than what it would cost them to have what I have. They also don't have to pay for the thing sitting there, doing nothing 75% of the time. Obviously, larger shops with substantial volumes can justify the type of equipment that I have, but my customers can't or don't want to. There is a lot more to making a CNC pay for itself than throwing wood at it.

As to whether or not a CNC would work for you? I am sure that any number of CNC sales people will quickly provide ROI analysis for your shop to convince you that it will.

I suggest outsourcing a couple of jobs to experiment with assembling a stack of parts instead of fabricating the parts. This will help you evaluate the benefits and perhaps see a few snags in your current views. After such a sampling, which you should keep careful time studies on, run a few jobs, again keeping careful time studies. Do the math, then decide.

From contributor D:
The only way to produce frameless cabinets quickly and efficiently is with a slider/beam saw, P2P, Gannomat, edgebander and case clamp… if you have the money! A NBM router is *not* for cabinets manufacturing.

From contributor V:
You, the employee, the router, the rent on 8,600 square feet, the vehicle and insurance (ancillary expenses) makes almost five mouths to feed (the machine salesman, landlord and the like being the remaining three).

50% of your effort is going to be in sales and customer service.

Unless you have a partner with a financial interest, an owned building or cheap manual machines, it's a fickle system at best for a start-up operation. You simply can't make the money on melamine cabinetry with metal drawers (which a router is only good for) to support the extra expenses working only 20 hours per week.

From the original questioner:
The greatest unknown in my business plan (anyone's plan, I assume) is the sales figures. Therefore, I have pressed on with my sales and marketing and am happy to report the sale of five kitchens for June and July. This helps me envision the setup relevant to projected sales volume.

In any scenario, my two-man shop desires aside, hired help is not out of the question. What if I have sales of four kitchens a month? Then what equipment is justified?

If I am not set up to produce come summer, I'll outsource the components and build the cabinets in my present shop.

While we're doing our research, math and even sales now, we have the financing and wherewithal to start a respectably equipped shop. As my partner says, "if we're going to go into this fight, let's do it with a big gun."

From contributor E:
I have to disagree with contributor D's blanket statement about CNC NBM routers. Also, contributor V points out the cash flow logistical nightmare of wearing too many hats.

I have a CNC router that is well configured for NBM and cabinet-store fixture component manufacturing. I can say from experience that a NBM router approach worked very well for one of my customers. I provided the components for several hundred cash wraps for a major national department store chain. I provided the NBM routed, drilled, dadoed, rabbeted, consistent components, and my customer, who had a working shop and about a dozen workers, used his resources to assemble, tape, finish, package and ship the completed product. I made some money and the customer saved a ton of time, made his delivery schedule with time to spare, and was happy with the whole arrangement. I had no trouble staying ahead of the curve with a crew of two. Of course, the other advantage to my customer was not having a serious chunk of capital invested, and not using any real estate for the router and a truckload of raw material.

I obviously have a biased viewpoint in favor of outsourcing your components, because that is the service I offer. I am not going to try to sell you any equipment, so I hope you will consider my arguments in the good spirit they are offered.

NBM CNC routers are very good at sheet stock bust up and one-face drill-route-shape components. My router is also very good at P2P tasks when I use the stand off pods. I can line bore with the full sheet on the table, cut very efficient nests and cut rabbets and dadoes with much better constancy than you will get on a P2P, because a vacuum table will keep a sheet a lot flatter than a couple of little pods. That is not to say P2Ps are not good machines. They are very good at the tasks they are designed for. I just happen to like routers better.

These days you can get a good NBM CNC router that will do about everything a P2P will do, plus it will rout, offer a flow-through table and offer some additional flexibility in terms of what you can machine.

As a job shop, I needed flexibility. With my CNC router I have cut thousands of acrylic parts, a hundred tons of aluminum parts and I can’t count how many sheets of ply, PB and MDF on my Arrow last year. Of course, I would rather cut your components for you than see you agonize over a major capital investment decision that you may not have to make to ensure your company's profitability.