Ramping Up Your Shop to Take On More Work

So, there you are, running your shop, doing just fine, making a pretty good living. Your friends and family probably think you work too much, but, what the heck; at least you’re doing what you love, right?

But do you ever wonder about getting a bit more work through your shop? Squeezing an extra job out? What about that simple paint grade kitchen your neighbor wanted last fall – you never did it, did you? And what about those entertainment centers that people seem to call you about every other week? Have you ever found time to do them?

It would be all right if you didn’t have to hire any more people and could punch out a few more projects each year, right? But you may be questioning whether you’re ready to take on more work, to expand what you do. Do you need the added hassle?

More work will mean more estimating, more selling, more administrating – and of course, more building and more fabricating, too. And, in all honesty, more work usually means – but not always – more employees, perhaps the biggest obstacle that most small shop owners face when adding to their workload.

At our own shop, we’ve found that there’s a good mix to an enlarged volume of work in a small-to-medium shop. We like to have one or two large projects going, along with four or five medium ones (in different stages of development), and a number of smaller ‘filler’ type jobs we can sprinkle in among the others. This way there’s always a good mix of work going on.

So let’s take a look at the different areas of your shop as you consider a growth path for your business. Are you prepared if you can, indeed, sell a few more jobs?

The Process
It’s important that you have some of the basic systems in place as you ramp up. Take your insurance, for example. Make sure you’re covered for an increase in sales volume. It may be critical to ensure you have in place good suppliers and good subcontractors – such as door suppliers, drawer manufacturers, finishers, installers and delivery companies, to name a few. You may end up relying on these folks big time as you do more work. You may not be able to do it all yourself any more.

Are you doing most of the selling yourself? What about the pricing and the estimating? Is there a good system in place to do this quickly and repetitively – maybe by someone else while you’re meeting with customers? And, perhaps your foreman could help with some estimating? Do you have something like an Excel spreadsheet set up on which to do bids?

What’s your office help like? While you may not need much active phone help – voice mail is fairly accepted these days – you’ll need a strong foundation of bookkeeping and accounting if you’re to keep up with an increased shop workload. Just keeping after your billing and payables is a chore in itself.

What about drawing and detailing? Are you doing all of that yourself? That may also be an activity you can train someone else to do if you want to ramp up your workload. The “engineering” part of a modern shop is fast becoming the most important part of what we do these days – with many shops heading toward building work on the computer before it moves out to the shop floor and to machines that can be programmed to cut and machine parts.

As part of expanding your business, think about delegating and maybe even departmentalizing work before it hits the shop floor. If you want to speed things up when projects hit production, it will pay to figure work out well and carefully beforehand. You don’t need to get too corporate about it, you just need to get out of the habit of doing it all yourself!

Once you’re on the shop floor, you need to ask yourself some hard questions if you’re going to ramp up for more of an increased workload.

What is the condition of your current machinery? It boils down to your core stable of horses and the surrounding helpers: Your core stable probably includes your saw, bander and machining center, while your helpers might encompass your chop saws, routers, shapers and whatever else the tool catalogs offer.

The table saw your shop runs needs to run the gamit – from basic industrial 10 inch that is rugged, dependable, dialed in and well kept – all the way to a computerized beam saw, which many small shops are now purchasing. These beam saws have dropped in price, can cut fast and accurately, and can punch up your production substantially.

The edgebander is a key piece, a must-have machine for any shop worth its salt. With so much full-overlay, frameless cabinet work around, a good edgebander is almost as necessary as a table saw.

For some shops, a machining center is probably a luxury. For others, it’s become a central way of working. As a small operation, your firm may decide a decent stationary drill is a fine substitute for the moment.

At our own operation, we’ve found that effective material handling is a real key to getting work through the shop. If you can’t expand in real estate or square footage, you’re going to have to get creative about how you store things and how you move parts around your shop. Moveable carts are always a good way to have pieces and parts available before you assemble, rather than piles of parts. Racks, pallets and pallet jackets can also be inexpensive alternatives to leasing new space or moving.

Your People
Finally, be very aware that, ultimately, it’s really your employees who will make this succeed or fail – not just you. While you may be the person who decides you’re going to ramp up and do more work and make more money, if your employees don’t buy into the program, it will not work.

In this regard, your foreman is key. He or she has to be paid well. And, if you do well, please share some of the wealth. It will come back to you in ways you will not know. Let your foreman take on more responsibility as you ramp up, such as scheduling, detailing or estimating.

Empower your shop floor people, as well. Let them run the work. Keep an eye on them, but let them make some mistakes so they can learn how to do it well. Always keep in mind that the only way you’ll be able to get more work through your shop is by having your people do the work for you.