The Future of Job Shops

03 June 2024
Photo courtesy of Fastems

The modern job shop is undergoing a major renovation. 

Every year heralds fresh developments in machining technology, from automation through robotics and software to the adoption of 5-axis mills. When it comes to opportunities to optimise production processes, job shop owners are spoilt for choice.

Nevertheless, these advancements beg the question: if job shops are moving forward, where will they end up?

We look at the future of job shops and what shop owners have to do to stay ahead of the curve.


Where are we now?

Photo courtesy of JE Bearing
Photo courtesy of JE Bearing

Our team of experts has identified five key areas that will come to define the future of job shops:

1. More industry adoption of 5-axis machining
2. Adoption of AI
3. A transition to second-generation job shop owners
4. Market consolidation
5. The labour shortage


Each of these areas brings its own set of possibilities for the optimisation of manufacturing processes as well as its challenges. After all, overhauling the shop floor is no mean feat. Addressing these points effectively is essential for ensuring the future success of a job shop.


Modern machining

Photo courtesy of SDPSI via modern machine shop
Photo courtesy of SDPSI via Modern Machine Shop

5-axis machines have been taking the machining world by storm. Offering greater flexibility and simultaneity of movement than their 3-axis counterparts, 5-axis machines have enabled faster and more accurate production of complex parts. Despite the benefits that these machines offer, their price tags may give some job shop owners pause for thought. 

While 5-axis machines may represent the next frontier of precision machining, the cost of progress can be steep. According to manufacturing service bureau Wenext, entry-level 5-axis machines can be priced at $10,000 with high-end models ranging between $150,000 to over $500,000. 

Despite the costs, these machines may be more than just a nice-to-have, eventually, they could be a necessity for shop owners. Technological developments in machining have revolutionised job shops. Compared to manual machining, CNC machining manufactures between 75% to 300% more quickly. With figures like those it isn’t difficult to see how adopting CNC technology gave companies an edge. If the benefits that 5-axis machines offer become industry standard, job shops lacking this technology may struggle to compete. 


Adoption of AI

Photo coutesy of Stephen Dawson on Unsplash
Photo courtesy of Stephen Dawson on Unsplash

Artificial Intelligence (AI) may once have been limited to science fiction but in 2024 its applications are very real. Platforms like ChatGPT have made generative AI accessible from our pockets. With a 2023 survey carried out by IBM reporting that 59% of companies are exploring or deploying AI in their operations, AI is set to become part of business as usual.

In the manufacturing industry, AI can optimise the management of supply chains, analyse data and predict or even prevent breakdowns. With AI seemingly here to stay, job shop owners can stay ahead of the curve by looking for ways to incorporate AI into their machining operations.

While there are still some doubts about how AI adoption will look on the shop floor, the capabilities are endless. AI will become essential for a variety of processes including paperless manufacturing, tool management and lights-out operations.

It is also worth stressing the importance of AI for inventory management, estimating and quoting. When quoting for jobs, time is a key factor. According to the Harvard Review, you are 7x more likely to qualify a lead when reaching out within an hour as opposed to just one hour later. Using software that cuts the quoting time to minutes can have a major impact on a shop’s ability to win jobs.


A new generation of job shop owners

Photo courtesy of Quantum Machinery Group
Photo courtesy of Quantum Machinery Group

The modern job shop does not only have new technology to account for but a new generation poised to take the reins.  Peter Zelenski argues that changing demographics caused by retirement are is a major contributing factor to the changing face of job shops. According to Zelenski, “a large share of job shop owners was born between 1946 and 1964. They are at or close to retirement age now.”

The changing demographic of job shop owners is also a major talking point in conversations surrounding the manufacturing labour shortage. As is the case with the wider industry, the machining sector is also feeling the brunt of the shortage. With machining jobs listed as one of the fastest-growing production jobs, this will be a pressing issue for current and future job shop owners alike.

Innovation may be key and even help to support machinists as they face labour shortages, However, the issue is complex and job shops will have to take a multifaceted approach to addressing the industry’s changing demographics.


Market Consolidation

Photo courtesy of Wayken
Photo courtesy of WayKen

The introduction of new technology is one way for job shop owners to maintain a competitive edge. However, market consolidation may also be a key factor for keeping up with customer demand.

Machining is a very fragmented market with over half of all machine shops in the US operating with less than 5 employees. Partly, this is because machining covers a number of specialisms and job shops cover their niche industries and areas of expertise, for example, defence, aerospace or automotives. As customers ask for more and more quickly, these niche shops may merge to keep up with demand.

This was predicted for machining in a report released by Craig Ladkin back in 2019. According to Ladkin, “With 18,000 metalworking and fabrication shops in the US, averaging less than $5mm revenues, massive consolidation is inevitable.”

Nevertheless, changing the structure of any market is easier said than done. The economies of scale required to consolidate the machining market are not easily achieved. While there are no particular one-size-fits-all framework for this process, small shops must find ways to scale up to avoid being left behind.

In the future, customers may no longer be satisfied with going to multiple shops for each of their niche needs. A company that functions as a one-stop job shop, offering a wider range of services may have an edge over their smaller, more specialised counterparts.  


The importance of human knowledge and skill

2022 ATC Shop Tour Tim Grein
Photo courtesy of NTMA Arizona Chapter

The possibilities of automation represent an exciting new frontier for machining and are crucial for covering the labour shortage. Despite this, the value of human knowledge and experience must not be underestimated.

While automation is critical, if machining is not able to pass along and nurture human skills and knowledge then the sector loses the ability to service those niches.

People are an essential component of the success of a job shop. Even as manual processes become digitalised, studies show that there is a parallel need for skilled people to support these processes.

Successful job shops will need to marry the knowledge and skills acquired by job shop owners over decades with automated processes that optimise productivity. 


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