Over the years I have produced a lot of one-offs; car parts, camera parts, tool parts and just plain weird stuff. Over this same timeframe, finding a machinist has become more and more difficult.
Years ago, machinists were a dime a dozen, most working out of horribly run-down buildings in the worst parts of town. You could tell a good machinist by the amount of metal scrap he had around his building. Stepping inside a machine shop was scary as hell. The vast majority - no - all of them that I ever visited were covered in decades of dirt and metal filings with stacks of material everywhere. You entered through a decrepit door and followed a wandering aisle between the junk and machines to find and talk to the owner, a cigar smoking, unshaven, filthy-overall-covered guy who talked to you like you were the last person in the world he wanted to deal with. But deal with you he did, making the part to your exact specifications and charging you a price that matched the time and materials he spent making them.
Fast forward to today, and things are completely different. Machine shops are now housed in buildings that equal IBM's head office, thats if you get to see the building at all. Mainly you deal with them through the Internet, attaching your drawings to forms that are more unfriendly than the actual human-variety of machinist of yore. If you are lucky, they will reply. If you are really lucky, their reply will include a quote. The one thing you don't need to count on luck for, though, is that the quotes you will receive will make the project ridiculously expensive and will force you to scuttle the whole idea.
Case in point is a project I am currently working on; a birthday present for my son. I can't state what it is here yet as sometimes he surprises me and actually checks out what his old man has to say on this blog, so I can't give the idea away before I actually give the result away, if you get my drift.
I have come up with an idea for what my old man used to call, a "dust collector". A dust collector is nothing more than something that looks good but doesn't do a damned thing, a concept my old man wasn't particularly enamoured with. For this particular dust collector idea, I need two steel discs, both 3" in diameter and 1/2" thick, each turned slightly different. It also requires 1 1/2" of 2 1/2" steel tubing. Attached is a drawing of how these three pieces are to fit together.
Of the 20 machine shops I sent out drawings to, 8 replied. Two of those that replied basically stated they were not interested in the job. The six actual quotes that I did receive ranged from a low of $275 to a high of $600.
$275 to $600 for three pieces of steel that I could buy at Metal Warehouse for less than $22. One piece, the steel tubing, requires no further working once it is cut to length and the remaining two parts are ones that I could turn myself in less than an hour if I had a simple metal lathe. If I, someone who works in metal once every 8 years or so, could turn these parts in less than an hour, someone who does this day-in and day-out should be able to do it in half that time. I get that, in business, you have to get a return on your capital investments, but give me a break for God's sake. Lets say it takes an hour to make all three parts. At $275, that means the machine shop is charging $253 an hour and at $600, it becomes $578 an hour. Neither is a cost that reflects the company's investments. They just reflect gouging. No wonder work like this is going to places like China.
At first, I did Internet searches for machine shops within my geographical area, which turned out to be few and far between. Only 4 of the 20 quote requests went out to shops within the greater Toronto area. I then expanded my search to include machine shops in North America. The remaining 16 quotes went out to shops located throughout Canada and the United States. Surprisingly, out of the 8 that did respond with a quote, the most expensive were located in Texas and California. The cheapest was in Michigan while the two Canadian firms that replied came in with quotes of $325, still way to much for the work required, Canadian or not. In the end, I did send out one request for a quote to a company in China, but I haven't heard back from them as yet. I am curious what they will come in at.
Given that this is the third project that has been scuttled by machinist quotes, I just might turn my attention to finding a little metal lathe for sale on eBay, one selling for the price of the lower quote for this particular job. If one turns up, I'll buy it and turn my own parts from now on and the hell with the new age of machinists.
I have always thought that the worst enemy of capitalism was capitalists. Now I'm convinced.