Shop Tools & Equipment

Mar 9, 2012

Is it a coincidence that about the time businesses are wrestling with their taxes, we stop to take a look at shop equipment? Probably not.

With the natural assessment of overall business that comes with wrapping up the books for another year also comes the question of whether a shop’s basic tools and equipment are prepared to handle the next 12 months of hard work. What needs repaired or replacing? Will capital expenditures ultimately pay for themselves through increased productivity and better quality? Are there tools we’re neglecting that could make us better?

Shop equipment warrants a serious look from time to time. There are new models to research, upgrades to study and surprises to behold. So, we turn to our industry sources for information on the latest tools of the trade.

What’s Working

First, some introductions. After all, shop tools and equipment cover a very wide range of products, from the largest CNC machines to individual hand tools, and everything in between.

Here are our sources, and a little bit about their hottest products:

Workshop Hero offers its Metal Rescue liquid rust remover. “Metal Rescue is safe, clean and easy,” says the company’s David Yancho. “Safe because it’s a water-based formula that is designed to remove rust specifically from iron and steel while being non-toxic, nonflammable and safe for use on rubber, plastic, clothing, glass and other surfaces. Metal Rescue is clean in that it does not use sand, acids or other messy and caustic methods for removing rust. And it is very easy to use.”

Port-A-Cool, LLC, provides a lineup of portable cooling units safe for work bays and other automotive environments. Leon Aldridge, the company’s marketing director, singles out the Port-A-Cool Cyclone 3000 and the Jetstream 1600 models as popular speed shop applications.

Meanwhile, Rottler Mfg. deals in more stationary equipment, such as the company’s F79A machine that combines the CNC technology, tooling and fixturing of its F69A model on a larger base to meet the demands of performance work on diesel engines, notes Ed Kiebler.

Goodson Tool’s Dave Monyhan identifies the company’s Hyper-Finish Valve Guide Sizing System as a specific hot seller. “This valve guide sizing system incorporates a diamond abrasive that is fully adjustable in nominal sizes of 0.039 inches. The extra length of the diamond allows the operator to maintain roundness and straightness while honing,” he explains.

And for really big jobs, Scotchman Industries has redesigned its 50-ton 50514-CM hydraulic ironworker, notes Jerry Kroetch, having added a rectangle notcher as a fixed fourth station.

“The beauty of having a hydraulic ironworker is that is has four built-in stations including a 50-ton punch, 4-inch angle shear, 14-inch-wide flat bar shear and a rectangle notcher,” he says. “These machines are extremely versatile with a very small footprint, and only weighing 1,500 pounds they can be mounted on casters and rolled throughout the shop.”

Why Now?

When it comes to shop tools and equipment, it’s all about spending money to make money. So why might now be a good time to invest in upgraded equipment, or even offer it to your own customers?

For Kroetch, it’s a matter of versatility and meeting your customers’ many needs.

“More and more speed shops are diversifying,” he explains. “For instance, not only are speed shops building engines, they are also having to do more custom fabricating.”

For Aldridge’s specific product mix, environmental factors play a role.

“The U.S. has experienced record heat waves since 2010, and forecasters predict we’ve only just begun,” he explains. “Air conditioning can be impractical for shops, and it’s better to be prepared before the hot summer and/or heat waves arrive.”

When it comes to bigger equipment, often the goal is to do more with less.

“If you already own a shop, you realize the importance of billable hours per employee,” Kiebler says. “The F79A, for example, allows you to do more work with fewer employees. As a shop, think about how hard it is to compete with mail-order catalog sales. Margins grow thinner by the day. A machine shop can really help with margins if it is equipped and operated properly.”

Like it or not, the industry also changes over time, meaning new tools to work on new products.

“The innovation of machines and especially their tooling have kept up with the new specifications required for today’s family of both stock and high-performance engines,” Monyhan says. “Lighter alloys and components have different machining requirements than the older cast iron work pieces of yesterday. The older style of machines may not have the necessary features or variable speeds and feeds to deal with the different alloys these late-model components are being made from.”

Finally, many in this industry like to do things themselves. Be prepared to help them.

“We are seeing a surge in the ‘do-it-yourselfers’ market,” Yancho says. “Whether this increase is due to the economy or simply because people are pursuing their personal interests, we know our product is ideal for those weekend warriors and especially those with limited time.”

Maximum Efficiency

As a shop owner, if you need to maximize efficiency, here are some tips:

“Buy equipment that can run unattended and reduces setup times,” Kiebler suggests. “For example, there is nothing that robs productivity more than an operator having to stand in front of a cylinder honing machine and watch the thing go up and down and adjusting the machine to make straight round cylinders. We have a machine that runs unattended and will make each cylinder to size, straight and round to within 0.0002 inches. You couple a Rottler CNC machining center with our HP6A cylinder hone and now you have an operator free to do something else while operating two other machines. Setup time is probably the biggest killer of efficiency. I use the adage that you are not adding value to the part if you are moving it from machine to machine, and then setting up each machine for that block or head. The only time you are making money is when the machine is running.”

Kroetch agrees that to be efficient, shops should seek utility from their equipment. “They need more multifunction machines.”

Monyhan says if you want to stay ahead, then stay abreast of the latest industry trends.

“Keep up! Technology is constantly changing. Specs are in constant change. Talk to the equipment representatives, talk to the parts suppliers, talk to the gasket supplier, talk to technicians and attend technical seminars that deal with these types of issues. Make sure your machinist knows that this is not your father’s Oldsmobile anymore,” he says.

That includes knowing your products.

“Train people on your products,” Yancho recommends. “In the example of Metal Rescue, we are constantly working to inform our users of some of the simple things they can do to ensure success when using our product. A small piece of information can be key to the success of a user’s experience-”it can move their experience from one that is good to one that is great.”

And Aldridge notes that a comfortable work environment promotes increased efficiency.

“Improving working conditions makes for happier, healthier, more productive employees,” he says. “Reducing heat in the workplace can increase employee attitude, efficiency and health.”

Paying the Price

From loans and buying plans to saving for a rainy day, shops take many approaches when it comes to being able to purchase the equipment they need to operate their business. The manufacturers offer some tips that might help.

Most important, says Goodson’s Monyhan, is “planning ahead, pure and simple. Like any business, you must always be looking for the next innovation that will save time and money. Machines will function for a lot longer than the tooling. You can upgrade a machine to run late-model tooling cheaper than you can upgrade the whole machine. However, at a certain point the owner will need to also upgrade that machine to keep up with the required feeds and speeds or setup capacity that may have not been available on the original machine purchased 10 or more years ago.”

Workshop Hero’s Yancho agrees.

“Staying attuned or plugged-in to changes, developments and new products in the industry” helps shops stay ahead with proper planning, he explains. “Stay apprised of what’s new in the world of tools, equipment and processes, and then find ways to apply that information to your own shop or storefront.”

Aldridge of Port-A-Cool, LLC, says watch the money, plain and simple.

“Budget for and allocate a percentage of revenue to reserves earmarked for upgrades.”

And Rottler’s Kiebler reminds shops to incorporate the need for future capital improvements into your prices today.

“The first thing is to get paid for what you do,” he says. “I can’t emphasize this point enough. When I compare our industry to the industrial machine shops, I see businesses that spend as much in machine tools, measuring tools and cutting tools, but oftentimes charge half the rates of an industrial machine shop. When you stop and think about the level of skill, training, investment in tools and measuring equipment it takes to be successful, it amazes me to see some of the prices our customers charge to do the work.

“The successful shops realize this, charge accordingly and then update their equipment to become more productive,” he continues. “You have to make money in order to keep up with technology, tools and equipment. I see so many owners who won’t update equipment because they are going to retire in 10 or 15 years and sell the shop for retirement. But when that day comes, they have nothing of value to sell because the technology has passed them by.”

Chicken or the Egg?

Our last question was a curveball for our sources. We asked, “Do tools make the installer, or the other way around?”

Not surprisingly, Scotchman’s Kroetch believes it’s a little bit of both.

“I feel the installer is the installer,” he says. “But by having the proper tools it makes the installer better, faster and more efficient.”

Aldridge agrees.

“Quality work that commands a fair market price requires both. Either one without the other cannot achieve maximum quality and efficiency.”

But shops tools and equipment have certainly seen significant advancements in quality and versatility over the last few years, making for a faster learning curve for inexperienced machinists.

“If you mean does the equipment or tools make the machinist or the other way around? I would have to tell you, with today’s equipment you need less knowledge and expertise. If you are operating older equipment, it is most definitely the machinist that makes the equipment. I have seen some very talented machinists do some amazing things with older equipment. However, they aren’t very productive when they are finessing equipment to do the job,” notes Kiebler.

Monyhan also believes that talent is required to use equipment to its fullest potential.

“I have seen great machinists use simple tools to create great component. I have never seen a simple machinists use great tools to make great components,” he says.

So, it seems clear that staying up-to-date on the latest shop tools and equipment offers speed shops plenty of benefits, as long as that shop also has the people to take full advantage.

“The best tools in the world are worthless if the user doesn’t know how to use them properly, and the same is true in the reverse-the most talented installer can only do so much if he or she doesn’t have the right tools,” says Yancho.

Ramping Up

There are lots of reasons car owners, and install shops, need to get a performance vehicle up in the air: For maintenance and service. For loading and hauling on a trailer. To display at a car show or event. To help with an alignment. For long-term car storage.

Brute Industries has created more than 50 applications of its solid, lightweight Race Ramps product to help with all of these needs and more.

Recently, Jim Moberg, business development manager for Brute Industries/Race Ramps, took a few minutes to discuss the importance of shop tools and equipment to the overall health and success of independent speed shops.

PB: Thanks Jim. What’s your latest shop product and what are its best features?

JM: Car service ramps-they wont’s slide or gouge the shop floor, they are very lightweight (less than 20 pounds each) so you won’t break your back, and have a low profile so they can be used with sports cars.

PB: Why is now a good time for local speed shops to invest in shop equipment?

JM: Now is a time of entrepreneurism, research and development-people are making the right tools, for the right people and jobs.

PB: What’s the one thing managers can do to maximize efficiency in their shop areas?

JM: Use tools that are perfect for the job, instead of time-consuming/awkward tools that require unnecessary effort, and potentially create hazardous conditions.

PB: What approach do the best shops use to make sure they can upgrade shop tools and equipment when necessary?

JM: Establish and maintain a relationship with tool and equipment vendors.

PB: Do tools make the installer, or the other way around?

JM: Though there will always be varying skills and coordination between installers, having the right tool for the right project can mean the difference between a rookie and pro.