Brian Owen, Chief Operating Officer
Introducing shops to the wonders of CNC technology is very much a part of ShopBot Tools’ DNA. Prior to ShopBot being founded in 1996, CNC tools were priced upwards of $50,000, making them affordable for large corporations, but merely a pipedream for smaller companies and individuals. When ShopBot entered the market, they started offering a full-sized, 4’ x 8’ CNC router for around $5,000. “Our initial mission was to offer professional grade industrial equipment to people who thought it was out of their price range,” says Brian Owen, COO of ShopBot Tools. This introduced an economical automation option to small shops that were doing most of their woodwork by hand, opening up the market and allowing SMBs to compete with their larger counterparts.
Since then, ShopBot has continued to innovate its CNC machines, incorporating additional professional grade hardware, such as linear rails and high-powered spindles, to increase the robustness of the tools, making them suitable for more heavy-duty, industrial work. However, ShopBot’s original mission hasn’t changed in that the company continues to focus on introducing customers to CNC technology and “supporting them every step of the way” which includes technical support and training, from project design conception through production. ShopBot’s network is bolstered by technicians who can visit shops to install tools and others that can provide help to customers as they continue work on the development of their projects. “This support is critical because people want to know that we’re here to help them succeed,” says Owen. He also notes that since a lot of ShopBot employees use the machines themselves, they share their personal experiences while interacting with customers and tell them how they incorporate the technology into their hobbies or small side businesses.
ShopBot’s line of CNC machines range from a portable CNC, the Handibot® Smart Power Tool, meant for cutting out small, detailed parts (with a 6” x 8” cutting area) to the ShopBot Desktop and Desktop MAX tools that are highly precise and compact enough to fit on a shop workbench, and arrive completely assembled. Another CNC in their tool line, a 5-Axis tool, provides multi-axis capability, making material accessible from all angles. ShopBot also offers full-sized gantry tools that are meant for cutting full sheets of plywood and other sheet goods. “Because our tools are reconfigurable, we can accommodate sizes beyond our standard full-size gantry tools,” says Owen. In fact, at the special request of a North Carolina university near where ShopBot is headquartered, they created a 30-foot long tool. Owen continues, “the engineers working at ShopBot are always happy to work with customers who may have specific applications that would require a slightly modified version of one of our tools.”
One of the reasons ShopBot is able to honor requests of this nature is due to it having quick access to their machine components from trusted vendors across the country.
Thriving During the Pandemic
These strong relationships with vendors have been key in surviving and thriving through the pandemic, admits Owen. At the start of the pandemic, ShopBot immediately looked at its supply chain, ascertaining where risks existed as far as running out components to build their CNC machines. This required the company to revisit its vendor partnerships, but ShopBot kept going and did everything possible to ensure they could sustain production and provide everything necessary to their customers.
By keeping its supply chain running smoothly, ShopBot has kept its lead times down, a near-impossible task for most companies during the pandemic. “We were able to keep our lead times at about 2-4 weeks on tools, which means we could fulfill a tool order relatively quickly. In comparison, our competitors were asking clients to wait 2-3 months during the lockdowns,” says Owen. These quick lead times, informs Owen, is one of the things that “attracted people to ShopBot at a time when everyone was trying to get back to work as soon as possible.” ShopBot admits that being a U.S.-based manufacturer has allowed them to keep up with the surprisingly increased-demand during the pandemic.
Our initial mission was to offer professional grade industrial equipment to people who thought it was out of their price range
To that end, ShopBot takes immense pride in being a Made in America establishment.
Furthermore, ShopBot has continued to support clients through more virtual means, including Zoom sessions, live demos, and YouTube videos, sustaining training it previously offered via in-person workshops at their facility. Although ShopBot’s team members have been limited in their ability to visit clients, ShopBot continues to prioritize customer service. In fact, it’s one of ShopBot’s engineers that hosts weekly live sessions where people can ask questions, which means they get to interact with a real person in real time. Some of their customers have set up webcams at their respective shops which has allowed ShopBot technicians to provide guidance in tool set-up and getting started using their new tool. Prior to the pandemic, ShopBot offered in-house training sessions twice a month which were attended by people from across the world, something they hope to be able to do again, but the safety of its customers and employees comes first.
Even as ShopBot realizes the importance to “learn and adapt” through challenging times, they have no intention of taking their foot off the pedal. Driving ahead, ShopBot is particularly focused on addressing what it calls “the pro market” often comprised of clients that require large gantry CNC tools for heavy-duty, more industrial, needs. The path toward this goal has picked up pace over the past five years, especially since ShopBot launched its Desktop MAX ATC (automatic tool changer) product. While ShopBot’s large gantry equipment always had the option of an ATC component, they are larger, more expensive tools—costing up to $30,000—and not viable for all customers. However, ShopBot managed to harness the efficiency of the ATC and add it to their Desktop MAX tool, which reduces the price of a tool equipped with an ATC to around $14,000, providing an option that smaller shops are more able to afford and utilize to their advantage.
Helping You Stay Productive with Tools of the Future
If you’re an established machine shop trying to bring an invention or a design to life, you most likely have digital fabrication tools at your disposal to get started. But what if you don’t have access to any of these expensive machines, or the requisite experience with CNC technology? What if you have envisioned an idea for a product that you strongly believe in and are ready to bring it to life? Start-up ventures often don’t have the knowledge and/or money to ramp up to full production of their product at the onset of their idea.
Brian Owen recalls a recent example of this that involves a product that a small start-up wanted to create but didn’t want to cut by hand. They also wanted to personalize the product and wanted to be able to produce it quickly. However, the company didn’t have any experience with CNC machining. This is where ShopBot comes in. “They weren’t sure, yet, if they had a viable business,” recalls Owen, “but after speaking with us, and feeling reassured that they would have our support in getting the proper tool for what they wanted to do, as well as realizing that we would be there to support them throughout the process, they determined that ShopBot was the right choice for them.”
After ShopBot got them started with the basics, the company’s idea started to become a reality. Soon after getting their CNC tool and getting to know the ins and outs of it, they began the production of the product, including the personalization of it, and launched a full-fledged business around the product. “Once we introduce shops to CNC, they discover the advantages and end up as one of our customers,” says Owen.
Many of the other companies that have gotten their start in this same manner have become repeat customers of ShopBot’s. As businesses continue to expand and grow, they recognize the need to increase their production to keep up with demand. Purchasing a ShopBot tool, or even adding another machine (and in some cases, three or four more), is a way for them to ramp up their production using a CNC tool that they know is up to the task, as well as a company that will help them along the way.
ShopBot has not only made it one of their objectives to introduce shops across the country to their impressive array of high-end CNC tools, but they also have the intention of wanting to help aspiring entrepreneurs access the technology, support, and resources to turn their ideas into reality.
Through all of ShopBot’s new goals and ventures, they promise to preserve their DNA. “We will retain our core values and stay on the path of the tools being configurable and accessible to customers who have pricing and space constraints,” concludes Owen.