Challenges Reveal Value and Vulnerability of Small Machine Shops

By Peter Zelinski, Editor-in-Chief, Modern Machine Shop

I want to say some things about smallness. As in, small machine shops — the power of this type of business, and the vulnerability.

In the U.S., many if not most machined parts are produced by small shops. The actual volume of parts is hard to tally, but certainly most shops themselves are small. Census Bureau data say facilities with 19 employees or fewer represent 82% of businesses classified as “machine shops.”

Two experiences of late have reminded me how the work of these small manufacturers plays out, what their prevalence means and what they need.

I recently visited a small shop (under 20 employees) that has seen its business collapse with the decline in commercial aircraft activity. The Boeing 737 MAX debacle was bad enough; then came the cutbacks of the airlines that resulted from the pandemic. At the lowest moment, this machine shop that serves aircraft customers had only one active job running in the shop, occupying just one of its several high-end CNC machines.

Other bigger and better-known manufacturers in the aircraft industry also suffered from the declines in this sector. Some of these companies immediately responded by cutting headcount. This small shop did not; its owner kept everyone on the payroll.

Now, I cannot see into this owner’s soul. I do not know his motives. I credit that he is a man of compassion and loyalty. Meanwhile, I suspect he also knows how hard it is to find manufacturing talent, and how badly the shop might need these employees when business returns. However, even this latter motive says something important, because it illustrates how manufacturing benefits from ownership.

aerospace machine shop

Small shops and larger manufacturers have differed in their responses to business declines resulting from the drop in commercial aircraft work. This photo was taken at Trinity Precision, a shop serving the aircraft sector that we visited for this story back before the recent difficulties in the aircraft sector began.

Senior editor Brent Donaldson and I have been…(CLICK TO READ THE FULL ARTICLE ON MODERN MACHINE SHOP).

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