Jeff Robinson, owner of AllRout in Grand Rapids, Mich., loves a challenge.

Case in point: When a customer wanted some doors with detailed moulding for the University of Michigan, they balked at the cost. That is, until Robinson came up with a solution why not just let AllRout create the moulding components on one of its CNC routers and then apply the components to the surface of regular doors?

Incidentally, the mouldings were slightly bigger than a quarter.

"It saved them a lot of money," Robinson says. "They were very happy."

It is this kind of creative thinking and chutzpah that catapulted AllRout from a small start-up in 2003 into a busy and profitable business today.

Frustrating start

Even as a high school student working in a local woodworking shop, Robinson saw the possibilities that automation had to offer. He earned an associate's degree in manufacturing tooling with an eye toward working in the high-tech aspects of woodworking.

Unfortunately, his first few stints working at automated shops after college were often frustrating. Many times the CNC routers were old, worn or both. "I was called a snot-nosed college kid several times," Robinson says. "I was coming in, new, fresh out of college. I had some cool ideas. I knew what CNC routers were capable of. I was trying to get these shops to change. But, I was 21 years old and no one wanted to listen to me."

What particularly frustrated Robinson was the quality of what shops were producing from their CNC routers and what he saw as "terrible" customer service.

However, the time spent working in other shops wasn't lost on Robinson. Aside from honing his skills in working with CNC routers, he says he also learned how to deal with large companies. In his spare time, he researched all the aspects of CNC routers that he could. When the shop he was working for hit an extended lull, he upped his research efforts. When circumstances made a family-owned building available, Robinson, with encouragement and help from his uncle, Marc Vlietstra, decided it was time to make the leap and go out on his own.

Starting with research

Robinson's two years of CNC router research paid off when it came time to set up his own CNC routing shop, though Robinson's age occasionally was a stumbling block. "I researched all of the major manufacturers. A couple of them I blew off because they blew me off. At the time, I was 23, and they thought I was nuts," Robinson says.

Robinson's research wasn't just confined to machinery. He also spent time researching his market. "I spent a year and a half talking to people," Robinson says. "I would ask them What is it that you need out of a business? Is it price that's causing a problem with your current suppliers, or is it quality?' Most of them said quality.' "

Robinson's research also uncovered his market niche. Although there are several CNC routing shops in Grand Rapids, the biggest competition was a shop with eight machines. However, the shop wouldn't take orders for less than 1,000 parts. Robinson knew his clientele would be those companies that had smaller orders. In fact, Robinson had jobs lined up before his first CNC router was installed.

Setting up shop

By the time Robinson decided to set up his own shop he had narrowed his machine choices to C.R. Onsrud and another company. Robinson went down to Elkhart, Ind., to see a C.R. Onsrud in action and was sold. The shop's first machine was a C.R. Onsrud PanelPro.

Although still working full-time at another job, Robinson's uncle, Marc Vlietstra, was actively involved in getting the shop set up. He believes starting out with new equipment was a crucial move. "With that decision, we hit a home run right out of the box," Vlietstra says. "We weren't shopping for anything used. It was going to be brand-new equipment when we started because we were going for speed and quality."

After AllRout opened, Robinson ran jobs full-time during the day and Vlietstra came in the evenings after finishing his day job. After 13 months, the two decided that Vlietstra should come on full-time. A month later they determined that even the two of them full-time could not keep up with the work load, so they bought a second, larger machine, a C.R. Onsrud 148C16D. They have since added two part-time employees, Jake Vlietstra, Marc's son, and Matt Rubino. The two work alternating days.

Varied jobs

AllRout machines produce from many different materials, including hard and soft woods, MDF, plywood, plastic and even rubber, though the latter is something they like to avoid. "It smells terrible," Robinson says.

AllRout's jobs come in from all directions. Of particular note was a recent job for the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, where it had to make a piece for an historical boat. AllRout has also created trade show giveaways for Herman Miller. Robinson particularly likes jobs that other shops say are impossible or that clients think aren't doable on a CNC router, such as the University of Michigan job. "We get all the hard jobs," Robinson laughs.

The shop also gets jobs that come in from small cabinet shops, though they're often "napkin sketch" orders that have to be created in AutoCAD. Robinson charges a standard hourly design and engineering fee for those jobs.

Sometimes raw material is supplied, and sometimes AllRout will supply it. Normally a customer will send AllRout AutoCAD files. Robinson says he likes to sit down with manufacturers and go over designs with an eye toward making them more cost-effective for the client and for AllRout.

Lead times are short, depending on the job. Robinson and Vlietstra say one to two weeks is standard to allow for obtaining material, but often it can be much less. Vlietstra cites a job that was faxed to the shop during the night. They cut it when they arrived at the shop and the truck picked it up at 8:10 a.m.

Pushing the envelope

Both Robinson and Vlietstra admit that they push the limits of their machines. In fact, the two make videos of some of the things they've done that they send to the manufacturer. "We push the limits with our cutters. Our tooling guys are amazed with what we do. Our machine manufacturer is amazed with what we do. We've had custom tools made. We do a lot of beta testing for customers. We're pushing the envelope on everything we do," Vlietstra says.

Vlietstra mentions that he has gotten his changeover on a particular job down from one minute to eight seconds. "That was as fast as I could go," Vlietstra says. "From taking one off, sweeping the table, putting another one on and hitting the button. Eight seconds. It's just one of those personal things you just want to get through it, and being an owner-operator, I want to get on to the next job. So you're constantly tweaking."

Challenges

As with any shop, AllRout has its challenges, one of which is keeping job flow steady. With both Robinson and Vlietstra in the shop working to get a job out, it doesn't leave Robinson much time to be on the phone or on the road lining up their next job, so there is still somewhat of a "feast or famine" that goes on in the shop. One of the ways they are working to offset this is to encourage other shops even those with their own CNC routers to bring their work to AllRout.

Nonetheless, business has increased each year since AllRout opened. Only now is it starting to reach a plateau, and Robinson says that's because there's only so much product they can put out. They had a particularly strong month in April, where they ran both machines for 12 hours a day the entire month. While both Robinson and Vlietstra enjoy the benefits of their shop's small size, they expect to move to a larger facility and add another machine at some point in the next three to five years.

Staying focused

"We want to stick to CNC routing, what we're good at," Robinson says. "You won't see edgebanders out here, and we lose some jobs because some people want that done in one stop, but we're sticking to what we're good at."

For Vlietstra, it all boils down to one thing. "We're here to rout."

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