A short conversation with Paul Krickeberg, president and CEO of Sharpe Products, quickly reveals a few things: For one, he’s a people person. He wants to get to know his customers and says he’d ditch email in favor of an in-person chat every time. He’s also the type of person that’s up for a challenge. Half the time, he’s ready for a challenge before it’s even presented itself.
“We’re always looking ahead,” he says. “In fact, we’ll buy equipment before there’s a demand for it because waiting months to get it installed won’t work. It takes a little bit of foresight and a fair amount of risk, but it’s worth it. When customers call, we’re ready.”
For more than 30 years, customers have been flocking to Krickeberg and the team at Sharpe Products because of their tube and pipe fabrication capabilities. Customers also rely on Sharpe Products for their reputation for quality and fast turnaround times. It is an incredibly nimble operation.
“We’re small enough where we can react quickly, but large enough where we can take on bigger, challenging jobs,” Krickeberg says. “It’s not uncommon for customers to call and talk directly to me. It’s just one example of how our size keeps us flexible and quick to react to customer needs.”
Forming a fleet
Thirty-two years ago, in New Berlin, Wis., Krickeberg launched Sharpe Products with minimal equipment, but some serious gumption. With nothing more than a welder, a saw and a couple of hand grinders, he and just one other employee began doing work for the architectural industry, fabricating railings and other tubular components.
Before he could afford his own bending equipment, Krickeberg outsourced the fabricated tube he needed to complete customer orders. This model kept him in business until he was able to purchase his own benders to bring the work in-house. From there, business started to roll.
“We acquired a lot of tooling and more bending equipment, and after a few years, we wondered why we only did tube bending for architectural customers,” he recalls. “So, we started to branch out and advertise differently and since then, have done work for customers in medical equipment, aerospace, automotive, food and beverage, point of purchase and basically anything that involves tube bending.”
Based on the requirements of the new industries Sharpe Products was now serving, the company became ISO certified and underwent a machinery upgrade by going all-electric. With parts flying off the production floor, inspection needs rose, leading Sharpe Products to be the first company in North America to invest in a special type of inspection equipment that could keep the pace of company operations.
Thanks to the speed and accuracy of the new equipment, the company quickly earned a reputation for short lead times and a long list of tooling and fabrication capabilities. As word spread, more customers began calling on Sharpe Products for small-volume and prototype work as well as for high-volume orders with thousands of parts in a batch.
As time advanced, Krickeberg invested in more equipment. In 2012, he purchased the first of three tube lasers from BLM Group. “Not only could we supply our customers with tube bending, but we could also offer material pre-cut with holes,” he says of the investment.
Eventually, Sharpe Products had acquired a full fleet of BLM Group equipment: three in-line tube lasers, a sheet laser and four tube benders. The company also has the 5-axis, 3-kW LT-Free from BLM Group, which allows for holes and features to be placed on the tubes after they’re bent.
“We wanted to expand our capabilities,” he explains. “We’re trying to be the best and we’re trying to get out in front of the competition. And when our customers see the LT-Free, the lasers and the tube bending equipment, it makes an impression because some may see us as a smaller business.”
Opening up opportunities
Back in the early days, Sharpe Products was producing parts for its customers from what Krickeberg describes as “a little 1,800-sq.-ft. building with two people and minimal equipment.” Today, parts are created by a fleet of incredibly cutting-edge equipment within two facilities totaling 88,000 sq. ft. Operations still run lean, but the number of staff has grown to 40 employees on the shop floor and front office.
Among those employees is Marshall Arndt, a manufacturing engineer at Sharpe Products, who has taken to managing the LT-Free and handling all of the programming and training. Prior to working at the company, Arndt worked as a mechanical engineer and drafter at an engineering consulting firm. Even though he had worked with a lot of big companies, much of the sheet and tube cutting needs were outsourced. At Sharpe Products, however, he is surrounded by high-end fiber laser cutting equipment.
In regard to the LT-Free, Arndt is discovering that there isn’t much the 5-axis, 3-kW fiber laser can’t do. With robotic part manipulation and dual-access part loading capabilities, the machine can cut features and holes in 3-D metal sections, flats or stamped sheets as well as in curved and hydroformed tubes. He says it could create a lot of opportunities for any company – as it has done at Sharpe Products.
“We’ve done a lot of modern and interesting projects – from basic holes to complex features that are on or near a bend,” he says. “These geometries would pretty much be impossible to maintain if we tried to put them in ahead of bending.”
Without the LT-Free, Sharpe Products would either have to pass on that type of work or complete it on a CNC mill. While a mill can offer accurate machining, it has its limitations. For one, the part must be stationary. With the LT-Free, the robot just picks up the part, flips it over and starts cutting.
“Even if you can put it on a mill, you have to buy tooling and consumables,” Arndt says. “And, of course, you can’t really drill a square hole. With the LT-Free, you can cut square corners and all sorts of shapes that you can’t necessarily do with a standard end mill.”
In terms of applications that require holes or features placed on or near a bend, heat shields are a good example as is medical equipment. TV stands that require a variety of cut features are another common application.
“We also produce large frames for giant fans that require a left- or right-handed bender, so we’ll process those on our BLM Group tube bending equipment and then finish the parts on the LT-Free,” Krickeberg says. “Not a lot of people have that technology, but we do. There are so many products that require tube bending and then cutting afterward.”
Arndt takes that statement a step further: “I don’t think there are a lot of companies out there that want to touch some of the more difficult prototype or low-volume work that we do, but it’s something that we enjoy doing,” he says.
Quick learning curve
While Krickeberg says that he invested in his multiple BLM Group machines because “they’re the best available,” Arndt is quick to mention the benefits of having a common operating system across their fleet of equipment.
“The LT-Free has the same HMI and operating system as the LT7s,” he says. “Because all of the machines have relatively similar operating systems, we can cross-train employees pretty easily. On the LT-Free and LT7, the cutting heads are very similar, too, so some of the parts have crossover procedures, which makes things a lot easier. Having multiple brands would be much more of a headache for us.”
Krickeberg agrees, saying that as a relatively smaller company, moving quickly is the name of the game. “If you have to transition from one knowledge base to the other, it can create production delays,” he says. And as one learns within minutes of meeting Krickeberg, a small company must be nimble because there are plenty of other future challenges to plan for.