We operate on a cash only basis for all our purchases and investments. This means we have less flexibility to grow quickly, but on the flip side are much more stable and able to weather hard times without feeling pressure because we have no debts to pay down.
Step 1: Research & Resources
The first challenge is to determine which manufacturing problems are deserving of mechanization, or are best handled by your own skilled hands. How you determine this will depend mostly on the resources you already have available and how much your time is worth to you. Starting out our time was so cheap, we were willing to do many processes by hand, but as we achieved more success and needed to increase our manufacturing capacity while maintaining quality and be fast enough to allow us to focus on the many other important aspects of running a business e.g. actually selling the products we manufacture. We realized we needed to either streamline our process ourselves or outsource the manufacturing. Traditional manufacturing channels are often very expensive for short runs, so those were out of the question considering the financial capital we could invest and our lack of desire to go into any debt.
So how did we know which process to streamline first in our stove manufacturing? Most of the time I believe this is quite obvious, it will be the task you dread the most at any given time. It was no different for us; the mention of porting more stoves after the hundreds and hundreds of stoves I have ported made me want to hide under the sheets and cry. But when you have a dream and passion for your business you push through that feeling and just cry and hide under the sheets when you go to bed at night.
And after more thought about the numbers behind the porting process we determined the biggest road block to efficient and quality manufacturing of our alcohol stoves was the porting process for the jet ports (that's where the flame comes out). There are 24 holes in each stove. After a few dozen stoves that adds up to a lot of holes. At first we used a custom template and a hand punch to punch the 24 holes. This took 1-3 minutes per stove depending on how focused I was at any given time (the longest part in the whole manufacturing routine). After doing a dozen or more stoves, maintaining concentration became a major challenge; not to mention the ability to just keep up such a monotonous task at all.
Research and take account of resources...
Once we determined what we process we wanted to enhance, the research phase began along with taking account of what resources we had available to us. I looked to the Internet, fellow professionals, friends, family members, anybody who may have input on how we could streamline the porting process.
I broke down the manufacturing problem into sub-problems and researched them individually. This can be informal, something you do in your head as you go, or if you like the allure of recording your thoughts in the real world, write it down. I think it's important to note that during this discovery phase, research and accounting for resources are integrally linked.
That's a good thing; being linked helps avoid unnecessary work. For example if I know that I do not have access to a CNC router as was true in my first attempt to solve the porting problem, the processes I would study to help build the different solutions to the problem at hand would exclude CNC build techniques.
Also this outline process provides a chance to start defining important issues such as tolerances of your quality control, desired speed of the process and other factors that are necessary for the machine to meet your requirements of use. Some will be obvious others will be discovered after first prototypes. Do your best to be thorough, but don't let a lack of vision, knowledge, or solutions stop you from moving forward with your ideas. Often the problems that need to be solved or how to solve them will not become apparent until you've started crashing through the steps clumsily. Look at this outline as a rough draft for an outline of a big paper you are going to write.
Below is an example of how I informally broke up the issues that needed resolved to build a machine to port the stoves, took accounting of the resources I had available, and defined target requirements to make the machine useful. These will help keep you focused. I am not going to go into the details of what I discovered from my research in this step, I will share that in the later design and build execution steps.
End Destination: A custom tool that increases speed of porting stoves, maintains quality, and allows any lay person to operate.
- Index 15 degrees 24 times around a circle with less than +/- 0.005" accuracy of port placement from port to port.
- Be able to port a stove blank in under 30 seconds.
- Load and remove blank in a few seconds.
- Be operated by unskilled person safely.
- Be durable, be capable of porting hundreds if not thousands of stoves before part replacement.
Mechanical Sub-system Issues to research:
- How to time porting punch-to-punch, 1 hole per 15 degree rotation?
- Power source and power transmission system to be used?
- How to secure stove top blank for the porting process?
- How flexible should the system be, should I be able to vary number of holes, and angle at which blank is ported?
- Materials to be used?
- Metal Mill
- Metal Lathe
- CNC Router with 25" x 25" work envelope
- Standard Wood Working tools
- 1 Ton Arbor Press
- 12 Ton Shop press
- As much money as my wife will let me spend ($55 in the end)
- Electrical Engineer Brother
- Mechanical Engineer Friends
- CAD program
An interesting point. The problem that proved most difficult for me to solve at first was indexing the blank 15 degrees reliably within the +/- 0.005" of hole placement every time. I went through several designs before I attempted to build one and have it be a big failure. It didn't even hit the mark of indexing the blank anywhere close to 15 degrees. Ironically that design was the most expensive and time consuming to build. It's also the idea I thought was the most fool-proof.
This demonstrates a key point that I would like to share. The best laid out plans can fail miserably. Once again during the research and resource accounting step it is not as important to know everything as it is to keep moving forward regardless of how clumsy and disorganized you feel. You will need to plan for failure, that's not to say you shouldn't hope for success but remember the wisdom that "failure is always an option."