21st century design

Now, even in the toughest economic times, could be the time to reevaluate the design software purchase suited for your shop

It was only a decade ago that the thought of many small shops buying sophisticated design software or a CNC router was considered too costly. But many factors have changed during the last 10 years. And considering what has happened to the economy in the last year, and its subsequent impact on small shops, the CNC software landscape has changed dramatically. Program options have increased while dropping in price; small shops can rent software as well as buy it, and the offerings are no longer limited to basic kitchen cabinetry — closet and garage programs have become hot items. The only real question out there for the “software fence sitters” is whether CNC design software is right for your shop. Better put — will it make you money?

As difficult as it may be for many small shop owners to admit, life right now is about survival, trying to stay in business until the housing industry and related projects begin to rebound. And although finances are extremely tight, and the thought of spending discretionary money on any new products may defy logic, purchasing design software — whether or not it is CNC-compatible — is something that should be considered. With the proper purchase, the result can definitely have a financial upside.

Woodshop News spoke with several long-standing software design companies to receive an update on how business has changed and what the latest changes in the industry are. Here are a few observations from the top veterans of the industry:

“In an economy like this, you can do really well if you plan,” says Ken Frye of KCD, a software company in South Yarmouth, Mass. “The days of someone just buying something and saying, ‘Oh, it just does everything, you should buy it,’ are gone and they should have been gone a long time ago.

“We have a lot of cabinetmakers and closet makers [as customers] and they are always concerned about the program doing all kinds of things. You can buy our program and build on it in different levels, different packages. What it comes down to is you need to impress the customer; you need to make the sale. You don’t have as many customers coming into your business as you used to, so you only get one shot at it and software is really the only way to go.”

Mix and match
Another change in recent years concerns compatibility. Just because you own a specific brand of CNC machine, it doesn’t mean you have to use the company’s proprietary software.

“Moving to CNC has never been easier for small- to medium-sized shops because software and equipment costs have fallen over the years,” says Stephane Vidal of 20-20 Technologies in Laval, Quebec. “In today’s environment, compatibility among machines and software is less of an issue than in the past due to increased vendor cooperation. By simplifying automation and making the return on investment more attractive to cabinetmakers, the decision to invest in software and machinery is easier to make.

“20-20 subscribes to an open architecture philosophy so software integration is as painless as possible. With 20-20 software, users can adopt a methodical approach to automation. This modular approach allows users to purchase technology in bite-sized increments to match both budget and business needs, thereby allowing cabinetmakers to maximize their sales potential, which is particularly important in today’s economic climate.”

In the last several years, there has been a huge increase in software program offerings, which translates to this: you better do your homework before considering a purchase. To be blunt: buyer beware.

“Finding the best CNC software solution for your business can be a bit like avoiding a land mine while running blindfolded through a minefield,” says Paul Losavio of Planit Solutions, which is based in Tuscaloosa, Ala. “There are several things you should know before taking the plunge.

“Once you have narrowed your CNC machinery choices down to your top three, get a feeling from the CNC machine suppliers who [are] the CNC software vendors they are most satisfied with. Ultimately, they end up answering questions that are software-related and it is important that they have a good relationship with the company providing you the CNC software solution.”

Buy or rent?
So once a shop owner makes the decision to go the CNC software route, what other factors should be considered and how expensive will the cost be? It’s quite possible a software package with or without a CNC machine will take the place of an employee or two, most likely resulting in a cost savings with higher production. There are dozens of programs available today, and the shop owner needs to be diligent to find the program that will most satisfy his shop’s specific needs. Pricing runs the gamut, from a one-month rental to a fairly expensive purchase.

“In these difficult economic times it is important for the cabinetmaker to make the most of his/her time and efforts to ensure maximum profit and efficiency,” says Frank Jimenez, president of Siskiyou Products of Medford, Ore. “To respond to this need, Siskiyou Products [manufacturer of software programs including Cabinet Pro software] has released software that fits the budget of all cabinet shops, from the smallest shop to the largest. Cabinet Pro Lite, at $1,995, offers the one-man shop the ability to efficiently design 3-D renderings of entire rooms of cabinets in both face frame and frameless construction, as well as customized cut lists on individual cabinets or the whole job.

“If the one-man shop chooses to become even more efficient with an inexpensive CNC router, Cabinet Pro Lite CNC can then take him from cut lists all the way to producing the CNC code for his machine for a total price of $3,650, with no other software needed.”

“We have a [design] rental version for $95 that gives you 31 days of use [includes closet and cabinet design] and you rent it for only that period when you need it,” says KCD’s Frye. “If you are a small shop that does five or six days a year, you may not need the program for several weeks. There is no long-term obligation. You could skip a month and rent it when you need it again. And with that $95 price, you would build it into your cost of designing and pass it on to the customer.

“You can buy the design version of our software at any level or any stage; cabinets or closets, and you can build on it, add the cutlist or the pricing and then you can go as far as CNC in one-button machining.”

Use it or lose it
Software manufacturers are definitely more cost-conscious than they were two years ago. But despite the slow economy, product offerings have actually increased. Besides pricing, there are other factors to consider such as:

Are you potentially purchasing a program (and spending extra money) for something that provides more features than your operation requires?

Is the quality of the 3-D renderings high enough to use as a sales tool, or do you need a cutlist option?

During a time when accounting for every dollar needs to be justified, it would be foolish to buy a product with bells and whistles you will never use.

“Most CNC software is excellent at making a CNC machine produce exactly what you require,” says Losavio. “When searching for a CNC software solution, your No. 1 focus should be on the after-the-sale-service the CNC software provider offers. Find out exactly what is available to you from the software provider after the sale. Get a list of their customers who are around your size and in your sector of the industry; call them up and get a feel for their satisfaction with the service provided.”

And it should be remembered that you don’t initially have to own a CNC router to reap the benefits of design software.

“Even if you are not equipped with a CNC router, Cabinet Pro Standard will allow you to generate numerous bids for the same job, giving you a greater opportunity to be awarded the job in the competitive market in which we find ourselves,” says Jimenez. “In addition, your professionalism will be enhanced by your photorealistic 3-D renderings, and your production will be streamlined with an efficiency that will increase your profit margin with fewer mistakes and a quicker turnaround.”

“If you want to buy our cabinet design package, it is $1,995,” says KCD’s Frye. “Our closet design package is about $1,300. Then, if you want to add cutlist, it’s about $2,000. As far as the CNC goes, if you want to go to the one button, you’re looking at another $4,000 to $6,500. One-button machining for cabinets is $11,495 and if you were just doing it for closets, it would be $10,795.”

Don’t add to your pain
There is another key factor to consider before making a purchase. You can have the best program in the world, but if the tech support isn’t behind the product, you will eventually find yourself in a heap of trouble.

“As far as actual software functionality goes, you need to make sure to get a full demonstration of software offering the capabilities you need today,” Losavio says. “You also need to make sure that the software can grow as your business needs ultimately will. Hopefully the person performing the demonstration is a true consultant and has a good grasp of what you do. They should be able to show you ‘your’ products within their application. They should also be able to easily prove that their solution fits your needs. Talk about your pain points to them. There is a reason you are looking to CNC as a solution for your shop, more than one in most cases. Software should help you overcome the pain points, not cause new ones.

“Those most satisfied shops with the combination of CNC machine and CNC software end up with a pairing offering them first-class solutions backed by first-class services.”

This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue.