CAD Drafting Services for the Woodworking Industry

For some comapnies, outsourcing CAD work make sense - 1997

As outside drafting services come of age in the woodworking industry, outside drafting subcontractors are a developing phenomenon who come in all sizes and flavors. Some are CAD based, some are not. While metropolitan areas often have individual subcontractors who are part of the fabric of the industry, there are a limited number of firms who do business both regionally and nationally.

Outside CAD services can provide distinct advantages to the woodworker. They offer increased drafting/engineering muscle at peak periods without the additional costs of training or increased overhead. CAD libraries offer cost savings over time when you maintain a relationship with the same service. Details developed in-house can be exchanged with the service if your department is itself CAD based. Lastly, you can realize modest savings on a job-by-job basis if you work on a fixed bid basis and have a realistic understanding of your own drafting costs.

The growth of outside CAD drafting services in the woodworking industry is in part an outgrowth of developing financial and structural conditions in the wider manufacturing world. Their presence reflects the trend to down-size and out-task, the new corporate buzz-words. On the technical end, CAD has become the coin of the realm in the drafting world, but non-engineering oriented manufacturing industries, such as custom woodworking, have lagged behind in this development.

This article will look at outside drafting services for the woodworking industry through the following issues: history of the trade, why to consider it (operations), cost benefits, and company preferences.

In the United States, unlike Europe, there has been scant education for drafting as specifically tied to the woodworking industry. There is certainly some training in high school level tech programs, but it often leaves a great deal to be desired. In general, hiring woodworking draftsmen means training a craftsman to draw, or vice versa. The pool is pretty thin, and as any department head can attest, hiring and training is often an exasperating experience.

American woodworkers have various relationships with drafting. Small shops don't use it; architectural woodworking companies depend on it grudgingly; the kitchen cabinet and related trades reference stock drawings; and production furniture manufacturers tend to use highly detailed parts drawing to help rationalize production.

These wood manufacturing niches have very different types of in-house drafting departments, and will have different needs of outside services.

Why Look to the Outside?
Custom outside drafting services work primarily with custom shops. This is because of the feast or famine nature of the business, and the lack of drafting staff in smaller shops. A mid to large size custom shop might consider going to a drafting service the way it would consider farming out plastic laminate boxes in order to save its in-house manpower for more skilled work. Small shops can consider these services to fill a void when the need arises.

There is no accounting for the work flow in custom woodworking - it's hard to avoid being under or over booked. The current manufacturing wisdom on this is: keep your staff lean and contract work out to accommodate peaks. This is the engine that keeps many third party box shops and small local wood shops alive, and that provides solid profitability to mid and large size architectural woodworking and store fixture manufacturers.

The same attitude is useful at the drafting/engineering end of your operation. We have all alternately underutilized skilled drafters and pushed them to the brink. If outside drafters are an option, in-house staff can concentrate on work where timing and/or coordination is critical, while repetitive or long-lead jobs can be subbed out to a service. Large jobs can also be broken up, with the head of the department using a familiar outside service the way he would a third or fourth in-house person.

An outside service can also provide CAD capabilities when they are useful, but not available, in-house. Small shops have no drafting staff, so outside services are an option when a client requires drawings for approval, or for extremely complicated work. For these situations, an outside drafting service can bring in work that would otherwise go elsewhere.

Woodworking manufacturers generally have two very real reservations about using an outside service: cost and control. You can get into trouble on both of these fronts - and anyone who has worked with an outside service probably has - but there is no real reason why cost or control should go south. As in all working relationships, you need to pay attention to and agree about the ground rules. It is essential to have a firm cost proposal and to know your subcontractor's capabilities.

There are numerous horror stories about agreeing to a per drawing price and then getting twenty drawings for a job where you figured twelve. Price per drawing may be a good estimating tool, but it's not a good way to do business. Any drafting service worth its salt will give you a fixed, lump sum price. This can include plotting or not, and it can include revisions or not (if the service has pencil capabilities and/or you have a plotter). You may prefer to work hourly or at an upset maximum, which should be agreeable all around.

In general, drafting should run 3% to 5% of the job sales price, discounting both taxes and installation. It is doubtful that your own staff can do any better. The hourly rate figured by services ranges from $20 to $38, while your shop costs are probably in the $20 to $30 per hour range, including taxes and relevant overhead. In addition, it's not really a question of dollars per hour, but total job cost. Your guys may be able to pump out your job-typical work faster than anyone else, but an outsider who knows your conventions and has libraried your work on CAD will be able to turn out a job at a lower actual cost .

To maintain control, you need a drafting service that will do what you want. Any reliable service will be woodworking based, have considerable experience in the field, and one assumes, have wisdom about both manufacturing procedures and drawing conventions. There is probably some give and take here. A person whose focus is millwork shops may have something to show you about drawing presentation, and his work will reflect sections and dimensions which speak to assembly and stock-listing. On the other hand, you want what you want - maybe " cabinet backs, maybe "; maybe loose bases; maybe raised panels with applied rims; maybe raised panels with built-in veneer over edging. Most subs have seen it all; you just need to make your preferences clear.

You also know what you need for detail: plans and elevations with a few sections, or full sections and details for all construction issues. This must be communicated, or you may end up without the necessary detailing - or with twice as much as you actually need. Remember that even with subs, time is money. If you want every corner detailed out, as in production parts drawings, be prepared to pay for it.

Production Furniture and Design-Build
With production furniture houses, the issues of out-tasking are similar to those for custom houses, but with their own twist.

First, job flow has to do with market and new products, not with estimating's capture rate. In a way this is the best for coordination with outside services, since you know when the crunch is coming. You can block out time with a drafting sub, and avoid the hassles of training temps.

You won't be able to figure job cost as a percentage of sales in this instance. However, you can figure that your costs - at least in consideration of fluctuating staff that requires training, and the need for overtime -- will not climb by subbing work out. You will need to work out an agreement based on a mutually acceptable hourly rate, upset maximum, or lump sum. Doing this early on can eliminate a lot of headaches down the road.

In terms of conventions and control, you're the boss. Your sub should prepare drawings exactly as you do with regard to scale preferences and machining conventions. When parts drawings are involved, you know where you like to mortise and where you like to dowel.

Although CAD can always provide a competitive edge for the woodworker, it is most clear in production work. If you are up on CAD, you can hand block drawings over to your sub and have them mix and match for new products or configurations. This will keep costs quite low. If you are still doing things by hand, CAD can cut your drafting costs substantially over time, and an outside service can either become an integral part of your operation or may be able to help set things up in-house.

Another market that has its own particular needs is design-build. If you have staff for this reason, or the sales/design person handles it directly, then an outside service may be irrelevant. However, if you find that your needs for shop drawings vary (an architect may demand a large set, but many jobs may require nothing more than a sketch and your shop foreman's wisdom), and that you have a need of crisp proposal drawings that exceed in-house capabilities, an outside service may be just the thing. A CAD service can catalogue repetitive details for you, and they can give you a really impressive ink schematic or 3-D presentation (if they work in 3-D).

Cost Benefits
Many of the cost advantages realized by the use of an outside CAD drafting service are ones of effectiveness: expanding monthly billing, holding down fixed overhead, entering market niches that would otherwise be closed. There are direct cost savings that can be realized too. Some are overall, such as avoiding the cost of staff search and training fees. Others are line items on a job-by-job basis.

In general, there is no threshold of job size where outside services become cost effective. Any custom job, whether $10 or $10,000, can be drawn profitably on the outside. A large job - say in excess of $200,000 - can be turned out at an extremely good price by an outside CAD service if the job has repetitive details. The service's staff size and your turn- around needs are at issue here.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, outside drafting services won't have a major impact on your bottom line. Real profitability is established in the sales room and on the shop floor - but you already know this.

The area in which you really can make money by using outside CAD services is operations. If you maintain a lean staff that does its job well, a reliable outside service - or services - will allow you to expand monthly billing without expanding overhead. It may also allow you to bid on work you might otherwise pass up, and if you are working with break-even volume numbers, this is a very clear profit maker. You can save on staff training as well; you won't be forced to steal people from other shops or have to train architects to do your drafting.

There is money to be made on a job-by-job basis, but you need to know your own costs. If you are clear on drafting costs, including overhead and taxes, then you can shop outside drafting just the way you would shop lumber - of course, you won't want to sub out work if you are barely full in-house. And be realistic about the potential savings. A CAD service might save you 1% of the uninstalled price. While this is nice, bigger profits come from sales and manufacturing.

Company Preferences
There are a few guidelines for developing a good relationship with an outside service.

A great quarterback for one NFL team may not play well for another NFL team until he gets to know its players. Check a few services and see what looks good. Do a few small jobs together and see if you can smooth out detail and format issues, as well as due dates and pricing.

Look for someone within driving distance of your shop; although if the service works nationally, this may not be critical. Decide how much face-to-face contact you need to feel comfortable. Do you need to get together once a week, or are you content to see your guy twice a year when he makes sales calls?

If you do choose a CAD based service, how does it interface with your operation? If you do not have a plotter, can the service provide pencil-plot drawings? If you do have a plotter, are your programs compatible? You may discover that it's more cost efficient to do plotting in-house, or you just may prefer to get a finished package in the mail.

Outside CAD drafting services can provide distinct advantages to the woodworking manufacturer. They offer increased drafting/engineering muscle at peak periods without the additional costs of training or increased overhead. CAD libraries offer cost savings over time when you maintain a relationship with the same service. You can also exchange details with the service if your department is itself CAD based. Lastly, you can realize modest savings on a job-by-job basis if you work on a fixed bid basis and have a realistic understanding of your own drafting costs.