Survey: CNC technology advancing
July 7, 2013 | 7:00 pm CDT

While non-automated operations still make up the majority of woodworking shops, CNC technology is quickly approaching the halfway mark and is making inroads in businesses regardless of plant size. Those are some of the findings of a survey conducted by CabinetMakerFDM to take the pulse of automation in today’s woodworking industry.

Who was surveyed? Sent to a large cross-section of readers of CabinetMakerFDM, the sample represented operations of all sizes. With more than 2,000 readers weighing in, the response was slightly skewed to the small to medium-size shops. Some 75 percent of respondents have fewer than 10 employees in their operations. About 9 percent of the responses come from shops of 10-19 employees, and those with 20-49 employees make up a little more than 6 percent. Plants with 50-99 employees account for 3.5 percent of survey respondents, and those with 100 or more workers come in at 5.4 percent.

Increasing levels of automation

While some 57 percent of respondents say they still have no automation in their plants, the numbers of those surveyed who report moderate to high levels of automation is significant. Some 15 percent of respondents consider themselves “highly automated for our size.” That pairs with 28 percent who are moderately automated to make up a total automation percentage of 43 percent.

While larger plants account for disproportionately larger numbers of automated facilities, even the small shops are joining the CNC bandwagon at increasing rates. Some 37 percent of shops with fewer than 10 employees consider themselves “highly automated.” And the shops with 10 to 19 employees account for 19 percent of the “highly automated” listings.

Going big for CNC

Another interesting finding of the report is information that indicates how enthusiastically shops embrace CNC technology. Some 96 percent of shops that report any automation at all say they have automated more than half of their operation. Just over 47 percent report they have automated 50 to 74 percent of their manufacturing processes, and more than 46 percent say they have automated three-quarters to all of their operations.

Additionally, the survey reports that more than 35 percent of readers are currently considering automating processes in their operations. Which processes on tap for automating heavily skewed to panel processing and panel cutting chores, but many also cited solid wood processes and finishing operations as good targets for modern technology. CNC routers completely dominate the list of machines that are on the shopping lists of those who plan to add automation to their plants.

Cost biggest barrier

The perceived high cost to automate remains the biggest barrier to woodworking manufacturers adopting modern technology. More than 41 percent of respondents to the survey who have not yet automated say the reason is it is too costly. Concerns are also raised about not knowing where to start and fear of the hassles and down-time that a changeover to automated production might entail. Only 30 percent see no need to automate at all.

Verbatim responses also suggested there is still a lingering fear of the economy and whether there will be enough work to justify the investment in CNC equipment. Verbatim responses also reveal an interesting contradiction as many suggest they are “too small to automate,” contrasting with the significant percentages of smaller shops who have already taken the leap to CNC manufacturing.

Misconceptions are also apparent when respondents were asked to list what they saw as drawbacks to CNC manufacturing. While today’s CNC machines are available in wide price points ranging from just a few thousand dollars to more than $100,000, many shops are clearly still under the impression that the cost is out of their reach. And while many custom shops have adopted CNC manufacturing to better handle requirements of one-off work, lots of respondents to the survey clearly see automation as only for high quantities of repetitive work. Many also cite fears about the requirements for adequate training.

Challenges match benefits

In contrast to the concerns raised about CNC manufacturing is the juxtaposition of perceived existing manufacturing challenges and the simultaneous perception of the benefits of automation. For example, many of the verbatim responses cited issues of time, productivity and quick turnarounds as significant manufacturing challenges. At the same time, verbatim also cited increased productivity, speed and consistency as values of CNC manufacturing.

Similarly, while often shops cited a manufacturing challenge of finding skilled help, just as often, respondents see a solution in adopting CNC technology. As one shop owner put it, “I can hire employees that don't have woodworking experience to run equipment that can do multiple operations, less set up time, more accurate, faster machine time, less waste, etc.”

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About the author
William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editorial director of Woodworking Network and FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.