Perhaps you’ve owned a CNC-equipped lathe for several years, and you’ve become pretty adept at programming with G-code and producing high-quality custom parts. Or maybe you picked up a mill or router to add to your tool shop. Those can be expensive tools – your hobby might be getting to the point where you’d like to turn it into a source of income.
But in today’s economy, it’s not enough to simply declare yourself your own boss and jump into business. Where do you begin? What do you offer potential clients, and what tools and techniques will you need? Starting a CNC machining business is always fraught with risk. You may not love your old 9-5 job, but at least it pays the bills.
There’s a lot of information out there, but we’ve boiled it down to three big ideas you need to keep in mind before you start your own machining business. Each big idea will have some smaller specific points with it, to help clarify your thinking.
Big Idea #1: Planning Makes Perfect
Starting your own CNC machining operation isn’t a small decision, and it will require a lot of planning. In fact, often it’s the planning stage that will make or break your business down the road.
Don’t Quit Your Day Job!
If you’re starting from scratch, try adding in your own business slowly. It’s not an easy way to do it – you’ll wind up working extra hours, nights and weekends to keep your normal job happy and your new business clients satisfied. But it gives you a steady cash flow while you build up your client base, market your new business, and generally learn more about CNC operations.
Know Your Enemy (the Market)
What’s around you? Are there already a host of small tool-and-die shops offering CNC machining services? Or maybe there are a number of factories that don’t have in-house machine shops, and are ready to outsource work. Whatever the case, you’ll need to do a bit of research and find out what the market will support.
Along with Tip #2, start building relationships with other shops and CNC trade groups. Look to partner with those factories in the area that need CNC services, and start making connections with different suppliers. Don’t go it alone; try to develop a network of contacts that can support you as well as supply you with steady work.
Big Idea #2: Slow and Steady Growth Wins
Even if you start small, work two jobs, and finally win a big CNC contract, you haven’t made it yet. Don’t try to grow as fast as possible; take your time, and build up slowly. Businesses fail as often from over-extending as they do from lack of work.
It’s ok to start small. It’s also ok to stay small, at least for a while. A small shop with a handle of machines and employees, run correctly, can outperform much larger businesses. You want to offer a quality product, and to grow steadily in a way that is scalable. Be up-front with your coworkers and teammates about what you have planned for future growth, even if is incremental.
Even when you’re a small-scale enterprise, you can look for ways to think broadly. Offer services no one else does. Do you have a contact for a certain diameter of metal tubing? Check to see if they have a supplier for the connections. Notice that there’s a need for sectioning certain hard-to-cut old parts? Consider a water-jet cutter or an Electrical Discharge Machine (EDM). CNC technology encompasses a range of machines and services, so cast a broad net when it comes to building your brand and the services you offer.
When it does come time to expand, don’t do it frantically! Don’t rush to add floorspace, build a new warehouse, or replace all the older CNC machines on the shop floor with gleaming new models. Expand if and when you need to.
Tip #1 – Add Variety
Add machines and services that give you an advantage over the competition. Branch out, and keep your eye on new and developing technology. Most traditional CNC machines – CNC mills, CNC lathes, etc. – remove material from a workpiece to produce a new part. Perhaps it’s worth considering adding a 3D printer, a CNC machine that adds material. Whatever you add and whenever you expand, do it to add variety and services that are in demand.
Tip #2 – Marketing Rocks
Don’t forget marketing! Even basic email campaigns or a simple, SEO-friendly website can go a long way to expanding the reach of your new CNC business. Marketing is not for stuffy, Wall Street types; at least, it’s not only for them. To survive and thrive, you’ll need to participate in at least a little bit of marketing.
Starting a CNC machining business is always a challenge, but it is not impossible. With proper planning, steady growth, and purposeful expansion, you’ll be able to see your CNC business succeed.