The concept for Big T’s Chop Shop came to life in the spring of 2020. Ironically enough, it was just before the COVID pandemic of 2020 really hit mainstream awareness here in North America. It turned out to be timely, as we soon witnessed supply chain disruptions and an upset to the status quo not seen in a generation. This forced me to move a bit faster than I had planned, but created a “No Plan B” momentum here that has been the catalyst for rapid progress.
We’re embarking on a grand experiment here at the shop. Outcomes are far from certain, and dreams and ideals are currently running rampant. One to-do is going to be to revisit this page in about a year to see how much things have changed, or been realized. But, it’s always important to put a stake in the ground!
Inspiration for Big T’s Chop Shop came from a variety of places. I would be selling everyone short if I didn’t acknowledge the foundational ideas that helped to shape my direction. I am truly are standing on the shoulders of giants here, and would not be able to do this without their work and willingness to share.
Online CNC pioneers like John Saunders from NYC CNC, and Titan “Ty” Gilroy from Titans of CNC paved the way for the idea that people could set up legitimate small businesses manufacturing products using CNC’s and other digital fabrication techniques right here in North America (and, more importantly, make a living of it).
My good friend Sho Ogawa who told me that it was very commonplace to be able to go to a hardware store in Japan and have wood or parts routed for you on a CNC router while you wait. This inspired the notion that a “chop shop” could be a thing. The simple premise of a place that can cut things to spec is largely absent from hardware and material retail in North America, and it’s strange when you think about it.
Companies like Tormach, Dremel, Prusa3D, and Haas, who have made education and accessibility a key part of their product platforms. Visionary “maker” movements and companies such as Make Magazine, Arduino, Adafruit, SparkFun, and Seeed Studio. They’ve made it ok to learn, make mistakes, and innovate at the speed of plumbing together their components and tools which they’ve simplified to abstract away the monumental Engineering effort previously required to bring things to life.
I’ll admit freely, I have a bone to pick with the mentality that “it’s not worth making stuff here when it can be done so cheaply somewhere else”.
We are selling ourselves out by offshoring our production work.
The notion that a designer can be completely divorced from the manufacturing process, and yet still create optimized goods that leverage the maximum potential of the process and tools available at their disposal is pure folly, and it needs to change.
The cost of goods argument is the legacy of a system optimized for deferring the human and environmental cost of consumption. To minimize cost, product manufacturing is off-shored to places with lax human and environmental standards. These goods change hands a number of times with various middlemen, brokers, and carriers taking a cut for their role in moving the products to the west.
We’re lured into the “cheap and good enough” standard for products, but we ignore the real costs along the way – human, environment, and IP are sacrificed for the bottom line price which frankly, isn’t even all that impressive once all of the intermediaries take their cut.
Modern production technology and automation solutions make it completely feasible for us to bring this work back home. Companies like Haas Automation are quickly bringing the cost of automated production in-line with the budget of local manufacturers, and this has the opportunity to create a massive revolution if we support these efforts as businesses and consumers.
We can do this. We just need to change the way we think about production a bit, and embrace the long term value in controlling our destiny and the protecting the value of home-grown innovation.
Even though manufacturing processes are complex, our business is quite simple. We need to make great parts and products for our business and retail customers, and we need to bring prototype and product manufacturing back home to North America.
Get It Done Right
We evaluate the success of our business on the number of relationships we build and the repeat customers that come back for our services.
This means that we must continuously strive for excellence and deliver quality parts that exceed our customer’s expectations.
Manufacturing is a series of give-and-take decisions where the pillars of time, money, and quality constantly play against each other.
“Getting it Done Right” involves a mastery of navigating the materials, processes, and potential cost-saving compromises involved in bringing a product to life.
It’s not just about absolute precision – more often than not, “right” means that loosening tolerances, or increasing the radius on a corner can save major dollars on a production run.
Get It Done Here
Rebuilding product manufacturing capacity in North America is important for many reasons. Regrettably, 2020 has illustrated many of the political and logistical pitfalls of being too dependent on offshore production, but that’s not really the entire issue. There are actually many more important long term benefits to bringing production back home.
A more tightly integrated loop where design and manufacturing are in the same time zone, continent, country (or ideally, the same room), will yield production advantages that we haven’t realized in a generation. We’re able to provide direct, immediate feedback to designers and product stakeholders that can make it possible to streamline production of their parts without a painful off-shore iteration cycle.
As service providers, our role in this transition is to ensure that we try to be competitive and provide high value in exchange for our customers commitment to local manufacturing. Some of our entitlement around pricing, timelines, and value proposition needs to change to reflect the new reality of a global economy. It’s a symbiotic relationship, and requires best effort and best practices on both customers and service providers.
There’s no question that Big T’s Chop Shop is a bit of an experiment, a gamble, and a dream all rolled into one. Ideally, it can be a sustainable business as well.
One thing that’s certain, however, is that it will be a journey.
I’m committed to documenting this journey and telling the story as we go. If nothing else, it may form a fantastic cautionary tale for others considering following the same path.
This is your invitation to follow along and see where the journey takes us. We’d love to get your input along the way, and hopefully we’ll all learn something together.
Trent (Big T) Shumay
Founder, CEO, Machinist, Dreamer