Is There All-in-One Software for Our Shop?

If you run a shop with more than a couple of employees these days, chances are that you'll be using some computer programs to help your production. What may have started in the office with your bookkeeping and accounting, or with your contracts and proposals, has now filtered out to the shop itself.

The last 10 years have seen a gradual change in our business, a shift within firms that relied on traditional woodworking skill sets. Faced with a growing challenge to find, train and retain a good labor force, we have all begun to rely on better prepared work (in the office) to build projects with lesser skilled help (on the shop floor). And, this is the wave of the future, whether we like it or not. We will be figuring out work more on paper and electronically, and then will build it with a systematized approach in our shops.

Before we can figure out whether the Holy Grail of software exists-one magical program that does it all-it's a good idea to take a look at major areas where computerization can help. Remember, you may not want or be able to computerize everything; perhaps you'll automate only one or two parts of your operation. The parts listing, for example, is the one obvious segment where it's useful to have the assistance of software.

From Drawing to Machining

Many larger shops are producing their shop drawings with computer help these days. There are many options out there, but AutoCad seems to be a fairly common program, as it's used by much of the design and (especially) the architectural community. Not only is AutoCad a strong program with more and more people trained to use it, but it's also a platform that both shops and architects understand. Not only that, but each party can easily communicate drawings electronically.

One big advantage that AutoCad has is that it's well accepted as a standard by other software providers. Downstream, if your shop is trying to produce cutlisting and optimization, there are a good amount of programs that can interface with AutoCad as a starting point.

Even though designing in AutoCad can be more complex and cumbersome (and perhaps less user-friendly) than other programs out in the market, it may be an easier starting point than other software in the progression of the fabrication process.

There are several good quality software programs out there that handle cutlisting operations well. The great thing about this software is that the math is largely eliminated and the user can really concentrate on the layout, making sure that everything works together. The better programs really prevent you from making major mistakes. Traditionally known as "stock billing," this is the part of our business that many shops now call "engineering." It's the details of detailing!

Here also lies the strength of these programs, the use that the software was really designed for-cutlisting. Much of this software is weaker when it comes to design or drawing, but many programs offer a good link in and out of an AutoCad program.

Machining is where the rubber meets the road. It is the most important and often the least visible layer of software for your shop-getting it from the cutlist to the shop floor, in and out of the machines.

Depending on how you're set up, you may just want a parts list out of your cutlisting program. You hand the list off to your operator at the saw and off she goes and cuts it all. One step further may be an optimized program of parts so you can get the best yield out of your materials.

If you have taken the leap, mortgaged your home and bought a point-to-point machine or a router, you may want a lot more than a paper list. A beam saw will usually operate much faster with optimized and machining instructions figured out ahead of time rather than the operator entering in parts and sequences. The machining center will work harder and faster if the person running it is loading and unloading rather than standing there programming things.

Finding good software that covers more than one single machine is important, and here you may want to talk to your machinery providers as well as listen to the pitch from the software sales folk.

At our own shop, we have discovered that this software- using the more "hidden" and underlying instructions and links-can be the most important of all. Not only does it provide the all-important labels for all of the parts, but it's really the glue that holds everything together- linking drawings, cutlisting, optimizing and the software that resides in the bigger, automated machines. Some shops have even gone as far as using bar-coding to help with part recognition. This, too, can be a huge help on the shop floor.

It's good if your computers can help with other tasks, too. Job costs is just one example: how much material, how many labor hours, your machining time, etc. If you can get that kind of information out of your software, you will probably get much better at estimating your future costs.

Inventory control can also be helped along with a good program, such as one that tracks hardware and material usage. Some shops also use this type of software to control their buying, generating purchase orders after the cutlists have been produced and the material has been optimized.

Assortment Works Best

So far, our shop has not found the all-in-one software, one that does it all perfectly. It's like those all-in-one combination machines that you sometimes see in the woodworking shows-they're pretty cool, but they can't do it all, and they are usually nowhere near as rugged or effective as separate pieces of equipment.

The way we see it, software is like the tools we use on the floor; you have an array of them around you, and you use different ones for different operations. Like any good "suite" of programs, it's great if you can find ones that stand alone well, yet still work and interface easily. But, that's often a challenge.

As some of our best cabinetmakers graduate and become detailers, they leave their benches behind and turn to computers. They pack up their tool chests and turn to a new set of equipment-software programs-building the work in the office rather than on the shop floor. And good software, like good tools, is a must-have.

Next Column: Your Shop and the Design Professional.