Lots of small shops talk about adopting new nested-based manufacturing technology as well as making use of outsourcing in their business model, and Hall's Edge in Stamford, Conn., is certainly doing that. But the difference is that owner David Hall is not using those methods to compete with other shops. He's doing it to make those shops his customers.

In transforming his business from a typical cabinet shop, making and installing residential cabinetry, to a CNC services business, not only has he found a successful business model, but also he has created an extremely minimalist and efficient shop.

Just three machines

Hall's business is founded on just three major machines. He has a Thermwood CNC router, a Holz-Her edgebander and a fork lift. Those, paired with the computer in his office running eCabinet Systems software, are about all he needs to run his one-man operation.

Of course, it wasn't always that way. After 18 years in corporate America, Hall decided to turn his woodworking hobby into a business. It began in his 1,000-square-foot basement shop just as many other small cabinetmakers have gotten their start. To make better use of his restricted space and machinery, he started outsourcing his cutting to another shop that had a CNC machine.

"I saw what a machining service could do for any cabinetmaker," Hall says. But he also noted there was a disadvantage to just renting time on some other shop's CNC machine. "They were great people; they just had a different priority their own work," says Hall. He began to wonder if there was a market for a service-oriented CNC business in cabinetmaking.

Enter eCabinet Systems

About the same time, Hall became involved in Thermwood Corporation's eCabinet Systems program. Described as a cooperative, the program offers free design software that includes ties to hardware and outsourcing vendors. Participants can use the software to design their cabinets and then order hardware, doors and such with the click of a mouse directly from the software.

Although Hall had no real CAD-CAM experience before eCabinet Systems, he became adept at the software and participated actively in the eCabinet Systems online forums. He began to see the target customers of his potential CNC machining service as the same kind of shops Thermwood was trying to reach with the co-op.

He watched the eCabinet Systems software grow in capacity and sophistication until he thought it would work effectively to help launch his new service business. He moved his shop out of the basement to a 2,500-square-foot commercial quarters and brought in the Thermwood router with a 5x10 table and the Holz-Her edgebander. He added a fork lift to make it easy for one person to maneuver units of sheet goods and pallets of finished parts.

How it works

When Hall gets a call from a shop asking about his service, the discussion typically begins with software. If the shop is a fellow eCabinet Systems user, he may be able to download machining files straight to his Thermwood router to do the job. But he also takes work from people who provide just drawings or who have no software at all.

In that case, Hall will design and engineer the job as well as machine it. But he never does site measurements himself. He may create a catalog for a specific shop so future jobs can be pulled from past work to some extent. He's thought about developing his own stock catalog of cabinets from which customers could pick and choose, but for now he emphasizes custom work. He's also thinking about bringing in other software to serve customers not part of eCabinet Systems.

"It's very much an as-you-go custom service," says Hall. "I'm very much here to do it as you want to do it."

Hall also will work with customers to optimize their projects for nested-based CNC machining. "I'll explain that if they change a measurement to 23-1/2 inches instead of 24 inches, for example, they could save eight sheets of plywood on this job," he says.

About 90 percent of what Hall does is cabinet boxes, but about a tenth of his work is specialty CNC machining, such as a recent run of parts for custom computer desks.

In the shop

Files for a job are downloaded to the CNC router for nested-based machining. That means parts are laid out on a sheet of material like puzzle pieces for maximum yield and machining efficiency and to reduce material handling. Hall uses a blind dado construction that is sturdy for the cabinets and efficient for the nested-based manufacturing.

Hall currently uses tooling from Vortex and Onsrud Cutter. He says he's comfortable with what he's using for veneer core work, but he's always on the lookout for better solutions in cutting particleboard and melamine. "I look at everything I do and see if I can make it better," he says.

Hall has built a plywood rolling cart that slides up to the Thermwood router's work table to help unload parts. He uses two identically calibrated wasteboards. When one sheet is machined, he simply pulls the parts and wasteboard off onto his cart in one piece. Then he slides the spare wasteboard onto the router, adds a new sheet of material, and the machine can keep on working while he sorts and processes parts from the previous sheet.

Parts that require edgebanding go to the Holz-Her edgebander. All the parts get labels to identify them. Then they are banded to a pallet for shipping or truck pickup by the shop. Hall does no assembly or installation and no hardwaring. Everything is shipped flat.

The pricing is flat, too. Hall prices jobs on a flat rate per 4x8 sheet of cabinet parts. There are additional charges for flip machining operations, and edgebanding is charged by the foot. There's also a crating fee, shipping and whatever the sheet goods cost. Some customers have their suppliers drop off the sheet stock at Hall's shop.

High production

With only one person and his limited machines, Hall still boasts a level of productivity that would make most larger shops jealous. "This system will do a 15- to 20-sheet kitchen before lunch," says Hall, adding that he has the capacity to do 10 average kitchens a week.

That's one of the reasons he thinks his CNC service really makes sense for small shops as an alternative to owning their own CNC router. "What's the sense in owning one if you're doing two kitchens a month," he asks. He compares it to leasing a car.

He also makes some of the same arguments for outsourcing as using his service. "It's leveraging. You can project yourself as a much larger shop than you are (by using outsourcing or the service)," he says. "You're not charging anyone for buying a router."

Hall is targeting only custom shops and emphasizing quality. Much of the work is done in prefinished sheet goods. He says shipping entire kitchens as flat palletized parts is not as expensive as one might think. Shipping costs have not discouraged customers from as far away as Minnesota and Tennessee from ordering parts from him. He regularly does business with a number of shops in neighboring Massachusetts.

Benefits to shops

By bringing automation to small shops on an outsourced basis, Hall sees his service as potentially encouraging custom work and craftsmanship. Taking away the drudgery of building cabinet boxes allows shops to focus on custom features that add value to their cabinetry. "You can take a skilled craftsman and let him do his skills," Hall says. "He can make money on everything you see with the doors closed. Boxes are boxes."

While some shops have considered CNC production themselves, Hall says, "Lots of guys don't have their arms around the cost." Hall also thinks there has been some resistance to automation in small shops by employees who fear for their jobs.

With outsourcing their box production to a CNC service like Hall's Edge, small shops can also have better cost control and schedule control. Hall's says he's even done a number of jobs for shops to allow them to, in effect, keep production going while they go on vacation.

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