Sometimes good business is measured more in time than money. That was the case for LTDesign in El Cajon, Calif. The 25-year-old San Diego-area cabinet shop was doing $2 million in annual sales with just nine people, a measure that amounts to more than twice the typical output of a successful cabinet shop. But keeping that pace wasn't easy.

"We were all working 10-hour days," says Mike Lowry, who co-owns the shop along with Peter Thulin.

The challenge was to reduce the often 60-hour work weeks to 40 without sacrificing sales or quality. To make it tougher, the shop also didn't want to add any more people. Miraculously, LTDesign is achieving those goals today, having reined in hours, while still keeping sales up and the number of employees the same. In essence, they've found ways to make the shop up to a third more efficient than it was.

Enter the consultant

One of the keys to the ongoing transformation at LTDesign was the involvement of business consultant Gero Sassenberg, who originally came to LTDesign as part of a Stiles Machinery program. Sassenberg is now lead field consultant for CabinetMaker Consulting  (see box below).

"He spent a couple of days here," says Lowry. "He looked at the entire shop and measured the shop. He gave us a detailed floor plan to help us set up a better flow."

But the issue was more than just work flow. It came down to accuracy. Sassenberg urged the shop to move production to methods that took advantage of the potential accuracy to be had from existing machines, as well as adding new equipment to further enhance accuracy, productivity and work flow.

LTDesign had been an early adopter of automated production, having moved by stages into CNC. "First thing we got was a slider, then a TigerStop, then a point-to-point," says Lowry. That first CNC machine was a low-end model that the shop outgrew in a year. They moved to a Masterwood  CNC machining center, which opened up new possibilities.

"Once we got the router, it was 'Look what we can do now'," says Lowry. The whole system was tied together with software from Planit Cabnetware and CadCode.

But assembly was still a mostly screw-together affair that helped make up for any inaccuracies along the way. Sassenberg convinced the shop they could do better by going to full dowel construction and using a case clamp. The existing Stiles Shop Solutions Altendorf sliding table saw and Masterwood CNC machine were refurbished and tuned up to get maximum performance. Lowry says he was impressed with the technicians from Stiles who did that work. A new Ligmatech case clamp and Gannomat dowel inserter came on board.

"It was isolating the real cause of our problems accuracy," says Lowry. "We can't futz it now. And with the case clamp, you know it's square."

The payoff has been increased throughput, smoother installations and less rework. The shop previously could assemble 15 boxes a day, but it's on track to double that.

Some of the consultant's suggestions are still in the works. Lowry is shopping for roller conveyors to speed the movement of parts from machine to machine. For better flow, he wants to move an older Powermatic table saw used for specialty work and potentially reposition other equipment. One of the consultant's recommendations was not to permanently bolt down machines until the shop was satisfied the machines were in the right locations.

"By this time next year we hope to have the rolling racks, conveyors all in and the saw moved," says Lowry.

Outside advice

Many shops are reluctant to bring a consultant on board because of the feared reaction of long-time employees to an "outsider" making recommendations. Lowry says that his crew for the most part were OK with outside advice. He has always encouraged them to "think outside the box," and he says he encourages new ideas from the shop. With a crew made up of people who have been with the company for from five to 20 years, LTDesign has an effective team.

Still, there were issues with change. "Everybody has adjusted," says Lowry. "Accuracy, that's what sells it, especially to the installers. The adjustments have all been minor, not major."

Lowry says it's important for shops to get outside advice, including seeing how other shops do things. "The average shop owner needs to see it in operation," he says. He went to another shop to see the case clamp in operation before he was ready to make the final decision to buy his own.

He readily acknowledges that many changes in efficiency require some initial effort. "Some shops say it takes too much work to learn a new system," he says. "And it may be hundreds and hundreds of hours to get where you want to be."

But in the end, Lowry says it's well worth the effort, especially when you can get that time back and more with increased efficiency.

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