I just got back from a trip that included visits to two Southern California plants with automated finishing lines. Having spent most of my career visiting smaller shops, it’s always fascinating to visit bigger plants. The interesting thing – and this trip really reinforces it – is how automation is blurring the lines between big and small.

Once upon a time, we used to define small shops as having fewer than 20 employees. More than 20 was considered a full production operation or in common terms a factory. But today’s technology enables everyone to do more with less. A one-man shop with a CNC machine can often compete with much larger facilities. And those big plants are constantly figuring out ways to achieve higher levels of productivity with smaller numbers of employees.

Big plants, few people 

Both of the plants I recently visited are strong examples of this. Their productive output per employee is something the shop foreman of a couple of decades ago could only dream of. For example, as featured in this issue, Decoboard Inc. in San Bernardino, Calif., runs two big flat panel finishing lines. One is 500 feet long, and the other is 260 feet long. The two lines dominate a 38,000-square-foot production facility. Each of the two lines is capable of processing 100,000 square feet of material per shift per day. So, how many workers does it take to keep all that production humming?

Just six.

Add the owner and general manager, and you’ve still got only eight people in the plant. If I described this as a “six-man shop,” most people would come up with mental images of small traditional woodworking operations with limited hand-crafted production. Those kinds of operations still exist, but it’s harder to make blanket assumptions just based on one factor such as employee numbers.

What defines big? 

So, that begs the question of what really defines big in the 21st century woodworking industry. Is it employee numbers, plant size, or plant output in units or dollars? All of these measures have value, but they all can give a false impression, too, when used in isolation. A custom millwork operation might employ 30 or more people but use mostly conventional equipment.

Compare that to a cabinet shop have the size in people but with automated equipment producing as much or more in the way of cabinetry and fixtures.

This question of size and measures goes back to the original reasons we merged CabinetMaker and FDM magazines. This issue marks our first anniversary as a merged magazine, and we are proud of the success we’ve had as the leader in an economically challenged industry. Just as no company can move forward without adapting to changing conditions, we intend to keep pace with the times to help the industry as a whole.

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