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Thread: Are commercial machine shops a thing of the past?

  1. #1
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    Are commercial machine shops a thing of the past?

    I live in Falls Church, VA and there is a local job shop which is good for me. I changed the motor on my drill press but wanted to keep the original step pulley. The old motor had a flat and set screw and the new motor has a keyway. So, for $50, these guys are going to cut the keyway into my step pulley.

    I went over there to drop off the pulley and it was like a tomb. The one guy working there said there used to be 5 people working there plus the owner. Now it's down to the owner, one full-time guy and one half-timer. This place seemed to be oriented more towards automotive stuff. Milling heads, valve jobs and such. I saw no CNC machines but I did see some really big iron from the '30s. I saw 2 Bridgeport universal mills gathering dust. I saw a lot of machines I didn't recognize so I would guess that they are for automotive type things.

    I wonder how commercial machine shops are surviving. Are these folks just too behind the times? It sure was nice having to drive only a couple of miles to a place next door to our veterinarian and across the street from our grocery store. If they go under, I would guess that my next best bet would be 30 miles.

  2. #2
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    Mar 2016
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    Elmodel, Ga.
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    Things are made so cheap these days (i.e.) China that it is cheaper to buy new parts or even machines than to pay labor cost at a machine shop. I feel your pain. Same thing has happened in our area. Large machine shop closed down and the only one still open is a small family owned independent with 3 employees. They can do most work, but since they are the only game left in town they are backed up. They also primarily do auto machine work.

  3. #3
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    I worked in a couple of shops in Berkshire County, MA. We had over 30 guys when I started in the mid seventies. Wedid all kinds of repair and upgrade work for local businesses like electronics, paper industry,water treatment plants, right down to guys like Roger who walked in the door. We usually charged walk ins coffee money unless it was a big job. We did lathe and milling machine work as well as blanchard grinding, sheet metal, mig, tig, stick, spot and thermal welding, built chalkboard and dry erase easels, wood stoves, and lots of stuff I forget about. We made prototypes for the dr powerwagon, built a lot of systems for Stanley Tool, made virtually all of the hardware for garden way carts and the Alpine Slide sleds and some of the tracks, plus a lot of the equipment you see on driving ranges. One by one, local industries went out or moved operations, the shop got smaller and changed hands a few times, and when I left after 27 years, they were down to 5 people.A few years later they went out of business. Nowadays you need the latest cnc stuff to be competitive, but I think if I had a small shop with a Bridgeport, lathe, a few welders, and some other metal working stuff I could make a living, not getting wealthy, but surviving. I did buy one of the tube cutting saws before I left and made windchimes for a few years, then the local anodizing plant went out of business, so I lost my source of material.

  4. #4
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    Just went through this recently. Stopped by what used to be a very busy machine shop across the street basically from a refinery, steel type plant. Looking to have a short run of parts made. Had 30+ employees as recently as last year. Shut down part of the refinery and steel production locally as well as out sourced. Suddenly nothing more. Just finding a vendor that is willing to do small scale work is quite a challenge around here.

  5. #5
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    I just went to pick up my pulley and got an earful from the owner. It's a shame. I don't think he's going to be around all that long. Everything there is old school. I didn't see a single CNC machine. And it's nearly all automotive related. I don't see him moving either. That stuff is old and ruinously heavy. Most of it probably isn't worth moving. They have a huge old Monarch lathe that he's tried to give away with no takers.

    I'm guessing that if I want stuff made, I'm on my own. I asked the owner where other shops were and he said I would have to go to Baltimore MD. And I'm inside the DC beltway! Yikes!

  6. #6
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    Apr 2010
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    Berkshire County in Western Ma
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    Monarch lathes were high quality machines. Hendys also. We had a few of the really good lathes in our shop, then they went out and bought a Summit Lathe. . It was a big machine but low quality. I avoided it every chance I could get.

  7. #7
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    Mar 2017
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    It's definitely the case today. I'm a machinist by trade and there just isn't any money to be made as an employee in that area anymore. There are a few shops that fill a niche and are doing OK, but none of them pay worth a darn so there just isn't a way for newcomers to make a living so they find something else to do if possible. The result is that all of us in the field are about all there is and there's no path to become a good machinist like there used to be other than maybe just doing it on your own and taking your knocks along the way.

    Used to be you'd either start an apprenticeship (even before my time and I'm old) at a place and stay there for a long time, maybe retiring there too, or start simple & cheap and job hop your way from place to place, learning stuff all along the way, until you eventually get chops and a good job. Nowadays you get the first step - simple & cheap - and there's a huge empty gap between there and a good job paying enough to make a decent living.

    The only good machinist jobs left (generally speaking) are in maintenance. Working at a plant where they need broken stuff repaired yesterday, or for a shop which serves these kind of companies, you can do pretty well. Today it's pretty difficult to find anyone knowledgeable & experienced enough to be this kind of machinist and hiring someone to handle this kind of work is not easy. No jobs means nobody is bothering to learn how to do it.

    As always there are pockets of exceptions, but very few and very far between.

  8. #8
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    Feb 2003
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    Mike Rowe addressed the decline of the trades:

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    If you want the rainbow, you got to put up with the rain. - Steven Wright

  9. #9
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    I believe that the loss of manufacturing jobs in America is a national travesty and in spite of the lower labor costs enjoyed by companies who have their products produced in the far east, in the end there may not be any savings to enjoy. In a microsecond our government can halt the system as it is today and where will we be, a nation that allowed skills of hundreds of years to just fade away. These are skills that take a lifetime to learn if you have someone who has the skills to teach you and a steady workload to learn and practice the trade.

    Of particular concern are the skills of the modern day machinist/metalworker for this is the trade that produces the tools and machines of all other trades. There will not be any production lines if those who have the skills to produce molds, stamps, dies and machined parts required for the production lines to function.

  10. #10
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    Peshtigo,WI
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    I don't know how a machine shop could stay in business doing automotive jobs, when's the last time any of us or our fathers had a valve job or heads machined on their vehicles. This type of work disappeared long ago.

    In order for a shop to stay in business nowadays you have to make parts for someone else who doesn't want or can't afford to buy the machines and pay the operators. And you have to make those parts at a very competitive price. I talked to a shop owner who used to make parts for my employer, he lost the contract because the brass machined part was replace with a plastic part that's injection molded.

    Another hit to the machinists and tool and die makers is 3-D printing. I'm watching it happen at work, the process/automation engineers come up with and idea for the end efector on a robot and don't draw it up and take it to the tool and die shop anymore. Now they zip it to the new 3-D printer we have and make the prototype if the prototype doesn't work they draw up another and print it out. This keeps happening until they get one that works and then go to the tool and die shop to get the final part made.

    I also think alot of machine shops are geared toward large part runs, in the thousands of parts, in order to keep setup time to a minimum. We all know we don't make money doing setups. So how does a Mom and Pop shop make money after paying for the utilities and tooling etc. if they don't have orders for thousands of parts? We know they can't raise labor rates too high or we'll just go buy a new part that was cranked out on a CNC machine that's run by an operator not a machinist.

    I think the computerization, automation, and machination in manufacturing plants are putting and end to skilled labor and some jobs in the trades. While at the same time creating some jobs, but probably not as many as are being eliminated.
    Confidence: The feeling you experience before you fully understand the situation

  11. #11
    Join Date
    Sep 2012
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    Mnts.of Va.
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    Good posts above....

    Manufacturing in general has changed.But to keep it on point,if your business has any intention of getting ahead,and requires frequent trips to a machine shop....move it in house.JMO,but the days of relying on subs is over.You either "get in line" with the fact that there isn't any more(in this case,sm job shops),or you do something about it.Way old business theory of horizontal integration.

    For years....30-40,budding WW'ers would ask me,with the very best intentions BTW.What should be their next equipment purchase.A welder.The point being of self reliance.Back to regular programming.

  12. #12
    I do tech support for a small turn-key not-quite CNC router, not quite CNC mill and a hobby CNC router and there is a pretty regular stream of requests about buying it to bring production, at least for prototypes in-house.

  13. #13
    Used to have a hundred guys making a hundred parts per hour. now a couple of CNC machines can make those same parts. Kinda like the plane of the future. Cockpit will have a pilot and a dog. Pilot is there to feed dog, and dog is there to bite pilot if he touches anything.

  14. #14
    I don't see how a shop is going to make it without cnc.

  15. #15
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    Apr 2016
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    Tasmania
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    In our shop we have both cnc and conventional machines. We have tradesmen skilled in both categories. We need the conventionals for one offs, short runs and single tool operations. The cnc's and robots do the production runs. It's the only way we can compete, which we do and even pay decent wages. Cheers

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