|Home Wood Working > ScopeGuard||Blog | | Support ||
CNC Router Helps Shipping Case Producer Reduce Lead Time from 10 to 4 Weeks.
Don Holcombe started producing shipping cases because he had a large telescope and no way to transport it. Friends in his astronomy club began asking him to build cases for them and he eventually quit his job and started a business to produce them. Holcombe soon discovered that he had orders for more cases than he could produce using a table saw, router and common woodworking machinery. He looked for a way to increase production through automation and discovered the Techno LC series computer numerical control (CNC) router. "The Techno router has reduced the time needed to cut out the shell of a case from 30 minutes to 6 minutes while at the same time greatly improving accuracy," Holcombe said. "Reducing the time required to produce our cases has helped to grow the business by satisfying our customers' desire to receive their cases quickly and freeing up my time to create more innovative designs. Shorter production times have also lowered the cost of manufacturing, increasing profit margins.
Astronomy has become an increasingly popular hobby. Amateur astronomers frequently buy large, bulky telescopes and accessories and are then faced with the challenge of how to transport them. Holcombe first got interested in astronomy when he was in the military doing artillery survey. When he had time, he used the surveying equipment to look at the planets and got hooked on astronomy. Some time after getting out of the military he bought a large Meade telescope and discovered he had no way to transport it. The company that he worked for at the time had a large projector and the case seemed like it would work well for transporting telescopes although it was the wrong dimensions. Holcombe visited the local distributor for the projector case who told him that he was not aware of any companies that were building cases for telescopes.
A hobby that went wrong
Holcombe built a case for the Meade telescope and took it to his local astronomy club. The case was designed for protecting the telescope while it is shipped as checked luggage on an airplane and includes corner casters for ease of movement. This case, as with all the others that Holcombe has built since, was designed to fit a specific model of telescope. A number of other members asked him to build cases for them. One of his customers posted a picture of the case on his Web site. The second largest distributor of astronomy equipment in the US saw it. The company contacted Holcombe and asked for a one-year exclusive agreement to sell his cases. Holcombe agreed on the condition that he also be allowed to continue selling the cases direct. Holcombe gave the name ScopeGuard to his cases and opened a Web site: www.scopeguard.com. Soon his sales had risen to the point that he was able to quit his job and concentrate on building cases. "This business is like a hobby that went wrong," Holcombe jokes.
During this period, Holcombe built his cases by hand using a table saw. He cut out the top, bottom, front, back and end panels with the table saw and then used a drill press and hand router to cut holes for the rivets that hold the panels together as well as locks and latches. The material is normally ABS plywood which consists of ¼" birch plywood with a 0.040 inch ABS plastic coating on one side. Holcombe had to measure and mark each panel before cutting. Then he attached a template to the panel and used it to drill holes and route openings. He typically cut out 10 cases at a time in about 6 hours. This job required the continuous attention of a highly skilled individual. The accuracy that could be achieved was limited by the skill and attention of the person doing the job. Even when panels were cut by the most experienced craftsman it was possible to see dimensional variations with the naked eye.
Automating the production process
As the company's business increased, Holcombe found it became more and more difficult to meet demand for the cases. "We began getting calls on a daily basis from people looking for cases for specific models of telescopes," he said.
"Customers were anxious to get the cases, but since each one had to be designed and built from scratch it took a considerable amount of time to deliver. We often lost jobs because the prospect found another source that could provide a case faster. Also, I had to spend most of my time cutting out panels which limited the number of cases we could produce and in turn limited our revenues. I began to consider alternatives for automating our production process. Some machines would have done a great job but were very expensive. Others were less expensive but did not seem to be accurate and rugged enough for use day after day in a production environment."
"Then I stumbled onto the Techno Web site," Holcombe continued. "It was clear from a glance that the Techno LC router had some significant differences from the other machines I had looked at. The other machines use stepper motors which produce a serrated pattern when you cut an arc. The Techno router has a servomotor which provides a much smoother cut." The LC series router is built on a heavy steel base and incorporates a closed loop servo control system that provides constant position feedback, high power and smooth continuous motion. Ball screws are provided on all three axes, offering smooth motion, a high level of accuracy and repeatability, and minimal maintenance.
Freeing up the owner for higher level activities
Holcombe designs new cases in Corel Draw then exports the design to the EnRoute computer aided manufacturing (CAM) software that he purchased with the CNC router. He uses EnRoute to create the CNC toolpath and nest the parts onto a 4' x 8' sheet of ABS plywood. The CAM software positions the parts onto the workpiece to minimize material costs. The Techno router produces all of the panels required for a single case in only 6 minutes, including not only the outside dimensions but also the holes and openings for the hardware. "Instead of being tied up continuously, I can turn the router on and walk away while it cuts out the parts," Holcombe said. "The only effort that is required to make additional panels is to load sheets of plywood and attach them to the table with the vacuum clamp. This can be done of course by a less experienced person so a considerable amount of my time has been freed up for higher level activities such as designing new cases and marketing."
The operator simply loads the sheet onto the router and turns on the vacuum pump to secure the workpiece. Then he selects the program for the model of enclosure that is being produced from the routers control software and pushes the start button. The CNC router then does all of the machining required to produce the enclosure in 20 minutes. The router operates unattended while the operator is free to move to another task such as assembling the cases. Holcombe says that a key advantage of the Techno router is that it has made it possible to use less skilled workers to produce the parts. "This makes it easier and less costly to find workers and the quality of the results is independent of the worker, making for a more consistent and higher quality product. I really like the accuracy of the cut. I no longer have worry about aligning the table saw. Every piece is identical because the router cuts to a high degree of repeatability."
"Some of our customers have waited for five years for a particular model of telescope to be built," Holcombe concluded. "When they are about to receive the telescope, they realize that they need a case to transport it and call us. Naturally, they do not want to wait another three months. The Techno router has helped us substantially reduce the lead time required to build their cases. We have noticed that we have won a higher percentage of our quotes since we began using the Techno router and we believe that shorter lead times and better fit and finish are the reasons why. The ScopeGuard Web site concludes that: "Our case components have a more precise initial cut resulting in an end product that complements the telescope or mount stored in the case. We have already shortened the lead time of our orders significantly since the purchase of the Techno LC 4896 CNC router. As we become more familiar with the operation and capabilities of the router, we will continue to decrease lead times."