Should a Shop Build All That It Sells?

There's been a lot of press recently about the Boeing aircraft company building a new airplane and the new thinking that's going into just how to manage that. Much of the manufacturing work on this and future airplanes will be done by entities other than Boeing, all over the world. These partnerships and suppliers are a crucial part of the success of building a huge product such as a commercial aircraft.

Perhaps it's time to think along these lines when it comes to your own shop. Can you build it all yourself, in-house? Yes, but why should you? You can probably make a decent walnut raised-panel door with your own shaper, sand it carefully and finish with a cordovan stain like the customer wants. But, a door company that's set up to only produce doors can be a lot less expensive, and may yield a better door.

These days, it's not so much what you produce, it's how you produce it that counts. The success of your shop may lie in outsourcing more, and being smart about what it is you do under your own roof.

Buying Out
Cabinet doors are a good first choice when choosing what to buy out. There are several large producers that will make doors quickly and well. What's more, they usually offer quick-ship programs for the (inevitable) incorrectly ordered doors. With fast deliveries and a huge range of options, it's hard to argue against going this route. There are smaller door companies that may offer your shop even more flexibility and customization.

The door companies know what they're doing, and they're set up to do it. Do you have a series of shapers in your own shop that you can set up to cut the panel profile, the cope and the stick of the frame, the outside edge detail? Chances are you'd be doing these operations on one or two machines, changing the set-up each time. Let a door company do it for you.

A next option is to buy your drawers out. Like the door companies, drawer manufacturers are set up and they do specialize. Many companies make multiple drawer types from simple melamine to solid wood dovetail, and everything in between. Many will drill for and set hardware for you, too, which comes in handy if you're using undermount slides and you have to do those rectangular cut-outs on the bottom of the drawer.

You may want to consider buying your cabinet carcasses out also. There are more and more companies offering this service, and like the door and drawer specialty firms, these folks offer fast turnaround and a low price point.

There are other specialized parts of our business that we can subcontract out. Veneering, for example, requires a hefty investment if you want to do it yourself. Not only do you need good machinery (saw, splicer, press, etc.), you also need plenty of space for assembly and for storage. There are plenty of companies around that offer veneer, and they understand the specialty well and will ship anywhere.

Finishing is another area to consider outsourcing. It's more of a hassle to move your product to another location to stain and spray lacquer, but, here again, you may find someone totally set up to do it.

We've had good luck subcontracting out our delivery, too. There are companies that blanket wrap, load and deliver every day of the week and if you use such an outfit, you're not using your own skilled workers to do it.

What about installation? Many shops are being asked to provide this in their pricing, and if you're forced to do that, you may want to enlist the help of another company. Consider partnering with a finish-oriented builder, or perhaps even with a specialty installation firm.

Shop drawing? Some shops are moving toward buying this work out, too. With the proliferation of people who are familiar with computer assisted drawing, it's tempting to subcontract this activity, also. Buyer beware here, however. It's one thing to know about CAD, it's another to understand how cabinets go together.

Cabinet Lines
You may want to think about adding a line of manufactured cabinets to what you offer to your customers, but you need to tread carefully here. You don't want to compete with your own shop!

You may well find, however, that you can offer less expensive cabinetry to what you make in your own shop, and that, in turn, may help sell your in-house work. You could, for example, show a customer a simple fused melamine door versus your own hand-painted one. That different price point will not only help show your versatility, but may also prevent your client from going to your competitor.

A line of cabinetry may also enable you to offer finishes you cannot produce yourself. Those glazed, antiqued paints and stains that are so hard to reproduce in a small shop are simply a production item for some of the bigger cabinet producers.

Many larger producers are intent on carrying door styles unique to them. Having their line means you are once again offering your potential clients something different, and that's what people want these days their own signature job.
Perhaps the way to look at all of this is the way a general contractor would. The modern builder does not want, nor can he build everything himself. Certain parts of the work will be subcontracted out the plumbing, the electrical, the drywall, etc. while other parts will be bought out, supplied by others. After all, it's not that long ago that builders were making their own windows, even the cabinets. Not any more. And, that's the way many modern shops are thinking there are other shops set up to do a particular part of the work.

If the "subbed out" work can be done more efficiently than your own shop, you may be ahead. It may take a little more management, but maybe you'll be able to get by with less staff and shop space. Combine the lower costs with faster delivery and better quality, and you're looking at a healthier bottom line.

And, like Boeing, you could be looking at a better airplane.

Next Issue: Communicating With Your Customers

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