7 Key Steps to Reduce Fire Fighting in Your Shop & Boosting Profitability

May 10, 2021

Author: Paul Van Metre

I talk with hundreds of CNC machine shops every year and I’ve seen a very common thread among nearly all of them. They spend an inordinate amount of time and money fighting fires, expediting late jobs, scrambling at the last minute to solve problems, and just generally dealing with havoc in their shops. When I hear these issues day in and day out, the old saying comes to mind:

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Some even employ full-time expeditors just to fight all these fires, and they routinely get shipments sent UPS Red, or pay to expedite fees to outside process shops, so the cost is enormous. Those shops believe that this is normal, and there isn’t much they can do to fix it. I agree it’s normal in that it’s very common, but there are many things that can be done to solve the issues.

Here are just a handful of things that cause these problems:

  1. Inadequate contract review is done and orders are taken with details unknown at the time of order.
  2. Lack of thorough manufacturing planning, and leaving details up to the shop employees to figure out.
  3. Material isn’t ordered on time or isn’t reviewed carefully enough before ordering.
  4. Cutting tools are somewhat of an afterthought and are often overnighted at the last minute while machines sit idle.
  5. Jobs are missed under a pile of job folders so they aren’t programmed in time.
  6. When the machine setup is started, it’s discovered that you’re missing a fixture, a special gage, or any number of other items.
  7. The wrong jobs are worked on in the wrong order, causing delays on important jobs.
  8. Paperwork is incorrect (wrong rev of the drawing) causing people to do things they shouldn’t be doing.
  9. Work instructions are missing or in the head of someone on vacation,

I could fill two pages with reasons that things go sideways in a shop. It all distills down to having insufficient business processes and not being thorough enough early in the process. I attribute this to the reality of most shops being started by machinists who are really great at making things, but not all that great at running a business. They are likely making due with inadequate software tools and paper processes which make their lives more difficult.

The hallmark of a well-run business is that the business processes are well defined, work flows smoothly, fires are rare, people know what they are expected to do, and they do it according to the process. When you are in one of these companies you can feel it in the air. Everyone is calm and relaxed, there are no piles of paper everywhere, and it just feels good. Reminds me of another old truth that race car drivers that appear smooth and fluid in their motions are fast on the track. If they’re sawing at the steering wheel and shifter, they’re bound to be slow on the track.

Here are my top 7 recommendations for eliminating the fire fighting in your machine shop:

  1. Estimate more precisely – Build out the router with accurate operations and target times for setup, inspection, and running. If your quoting process doesn’t allow for this time investment, then do it as soon as you win the job. Also, write down any notes that may be important things that the estimator knows or sees that aren’t obvious on the drawing. By outlining these and ensuring others down the line have that list, you can help eliminate fires before they even start.
  2. Do a thorough contract review – Review the order in detail, look at the supporting documents, drawings, workmanship standards, timeline, and due dates, capacity in your shop, special tools that may be needed, gages you may not have, long lead time material or hardware, etc. You’re looking for things that will bite you later if they aren’t addressed upfront. Use a checklist!
  3. Do more detailed manufacturing planning – Review the estimated routing and either confirm or make changes to it. When CNC programming is happening, generate an exact list of cutting tools, down to the vendor PN. Document the setup instructions using screen grabs from your CAM system. Update the target cycle times and setup times if you believe the estimate was inaccurate, and then schedule accordingly. Use a checklist!
  4. Built your inspection plan early – An inspection plan should be a collaboration between your CNC programmer and the quality department. The programmer knows which features are being cut by which tools. This is an essential part of developing an appropriate inspection plan. By doing this early you can also identify any gages you may not have and need to order. Don’t wait until after the parts are done and waiting for QA to develop that plan! And use a checklist!
  5. Schedule to ship dates, not due dates – Schedule your jobs according to when they need to leave your facility next. Work backwards from the client due date, subtracting out shipping lead time, QA time through final inspection, other machining operations, outside processing lead times, etc. By doing this you can be much more precise about when jobs need to be run on your CNC machines in the right order.
  6. Kit your jobs – Aim to have all your jobs kitted a day before they go on the machines. Pull all the cutting tools, load them in the right holders, with the right pull studs, sticking out the right length, and properly torqued. Use an offline tool presetter if you have one and develop a file of offsets you can upload into the control. Pull your fixtures, softjaws, hardware and put them on a job cart along with the tools. Collect any special gages you’ll need. Get the material queued up for the machine. And use a checklist!! By doing this kitting process, you can reliably reduce setup times by 50% or more.
  7. Verify everything before the job goes on the CNC – Confirm that everything is ready and prepared before you attempt a setup. The drawing is correct at the right revision, material is here and verified as accurate, the kitting process is complete, the G-code is ready and posted for the right machine, the work instructions are available. Your goal should be that when the machinist walks up to the machine with that job cart, they do not need to leave the machine until they have a good part in their hands. If they had to leave for any reason, something in your process broke down and needs fixing.

How can ProShop ERP help?

ProShop has built-in tools and workflows to help guide, document, and provide checklists for all the items listed above. By slowing down a little bit, and doing this more thorough process, huge amounts of time can be saved, and problems can be eliminated before they even happen. There are times when a super rush prototype job may require cutting a few corners, but that should be the exception, and even in those cases, an abbreviated process should be performed.

A client emailed me just yesterday sharing some of their recent success. Before ProShop, they were the classic machine shop I described above, always scrambling, always fighting fires, and dealing with an inadequate ERP tool. It was draining for them, hard on profitability, and very stressful.


“Three years ago before ProShop, we got up to a $2.5 million dollar backlog and it was too much for us to handle and our on-time delivery was under 80%. We were always scrambling and felt like it was a never-ending circle. We got a slap on our wrist from one of our customers warning us not to take on too much work.

Fast forward 1 year after going live with ProShop, our current backlog is now $2.3 million. We have the same machines, and same people, but work is FLYING through the shop. Our throughput has gone up over 20-30%. Our scrap rate is averaging less than 1%. Our on-time delivery is averaging 95-99%. We are typing up a record amount of orders each month. We are having fewer production meetings. We don’t need to pay as much overtime to ship all that extra work! Everyone just knows what to do. We run repeat jobs with extreme confidence knowing all the previous information and documentation is already in ProShop!

We’re adding onto the facility, and just ordered 2 new CNC machines. We’re diversifying into the Space and Aerospace industries. We’ve gotten AS9100 certified, ITAR Registered and will be going after CMMC Level 1 soon. We’ve just picked up a new client in the space industry and got our first job from Lockheed Martin, and have a few other new potential aerospace clients.

Our thanks goes out to everyone at ProShop!”

So by working on those 7 items listed above, and using some common sense approaches to ensuring you have a reliable process to find and solve problems before they happen, you can have a profound impact on the efficiency of your organization, freeing up capacity, reducing stress, shipping more parts faster than ever before, and realizing significant improvements in profitability in the process.

Read more real customer reviews here

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