Many of the original employees still work at Sharpe Products, including (from left) Bob Pihringer, lead fabricator; Connie Byal, sales and purchasing manager; Paul Krickeberg, president & CEO; David Nogalski, lead estimator; and Randy Krickeberg, plant manager.
“We leased the same space in the same building, so we didn’t have to move anything.”
Krickeberg was employed full-time elsewhere then, so he moonlighted at the business while his partner ran the day shift. For the most part, it was a fabrication shop that made railings and architectural products from stainless steel, aluminum, and brass. Before long, the two owners gave some thought to branching out and finding a niche in the metals industry to make semifinished goods based on custom bending.
Still in the early stages of establishing the company’s new role, they didn’t have a plan beyond intending to work hard and do right by the customers. Krickeberg summed it up as “Do your best, serve the customers, and keep at it.” Thirty years later, it’s evident that Krickeberg grew into his role, providing the leadership needed to guide the business through the decades, riding high on the peaks and surviving the valleys, keeping up with technology and business trends, improvising when necessary, and adapting as the industry changed over the years.
Jump-starting a Business After Jumping Ship
After a few months of working away at cutting and welding, using the company’s not-quite-fully-formed business plan, Krickeberg came to realize that his future lay with the new venture, not with his employer. He had been chatting with Nogalski about some of his travails when he spontaneously decided it was time to cut his ties. He put in his notice and proceeded to dedicate 100% of his energy to the fledgling company.
“It was an exciting time,” Krickeberg said. “When we showed up at work, we didn’t know what was going to happen that day. We just hoped that the good days would outnumber the bad days.” It was a big risk. Although he was supporting a family of six, Krickeberg gave up the security of a steady paycheck.
First, the two owners debated purchasing a bender. After coming to a decision, they found a seller who offered to include a single die set. Rather than dip a toe into the water at the shallow end, Krickeberg saw an opportunity to plunge into the deep end; he offered to buy all of the die sets, which numbered in the hundreds. This purchase immediately provided Sharpe the ability to bend essentially any common tube or pipe diameter up to 6 in. OD.
It was prepared to do custom bending, and advertised this capability, but orders weren’t coming in steadily yet.
“Oftentimes an order was the only order, and if it got held up for some reason, we had nothing to do,” Krickeberg recalled. Not content to have idle equipment and idle workers, Krickeberg directed the shop staff to start making bends for future orders. He knew a thing or two about the handrail industry and the bends they’d likely need to fulfill future orders, so cutting 100 lengths of pipe and making 100 bends for inventory seemed like good preparation.
And that was it—suddenly Sharpe was both a custom tube bending company, ready to make manufactured components, and a full-fledged supplier of handrails and related hardware, ready to ship parts on short notice.
Technology Trends in Tube Fabrication
After Sharpe branched out from sawing and welding to embrace bending, its technology portfolio became broader and deeper, encompassing end forming, laser cutting, and sophisticated measuring technologies.
In adding this equipment, Krickeberg pursued one goal: to make Sharpe a one-stop shop for tube fabrication in sizes up to 6-in. diameter.
Bending, Part I. Bending equipment for tubular workpieces takes many forms, from a simple press-type machines to sophisticated rotary units that draw the tube around a die, supported by a mandrel to limit ovality and a wiper die to remove wrinkles. Twin-head units are great for high-speed production when making symmetrical parts; induction units tackle heavy-wall, large-diameter workpieces; and three-roll units provide substantial diversity in bend radii.
While each has a place in industry, and Sharpe has all the available cold-bending technologies, rotary draw bending is considered to be the gold standard for precise and complex bending. Like many business owners in the industry, Krickeberg has had his share of early benders, built before CNC was available. Companies like Pines and Eaton Leonard built durable, robust machines that ran decade after decade, so even after CNC became a trend in manufacturing, many companies like Sharpe still relied on previous-generation machines that used hard stops.
“We bought CNC machines as soon as we could afford to,” Krickeberg said. He found two at a government auction on the West Coast; the asking price was $20,000, so a Sharpe employee went to the auction site, looked them over, and determined that they were in like-new condition. The chance to move up the technology ladder at such a low price was attractive, and soon he took delivery of two machines. Those machines served Sharpe so well that Krickeberg had them refurbished, rather than replaced, after several years of service.
Materials can elongate only so much before they fail; a 2-in.-thick sample of SAE 1010 steel can stretch about 20% before it splits. Forming coil into a tube uses some of the ductility, leaving less elongation for subsequent forming operations. Without annealing, the steel has only so much to give; every process that forms the material and creates a heating-and-cooling cycle, which is a characteristic of most fabrication processes, uses up some of the remaining ductility.
Using a single-head end former for several hits, changing dies between each hit, allows the metal to cool between step. If an identical series of forming processes can be performed so quickly that the material doesn’t have a chance to cool between hits, this process can achieve a little more forming. The residual heat that remains in the material enables some relieving of the built-up stress in the metal, meaning that the process makes better use of the material’s ductility. Of the two processes, the latter is more likely to result in a good part. This is the essence of the RAM-70.
Beyond this, forming up to six hits on one machine is really, really fast compared to six distinct end forming processes performed one at a time.
“This machine is the key to high-speed end forming,” Krickeberg said.
Bending, Part II. Years after Sharpe had invested in its first two CNC benders, Krickeberg was looking through a vast overflow of e-mail when he happened to see an offer for another bender. Like his two initial CNC units, this bender was used, but it was a different technology. Rather than using an electric-powered hydraulic system to develop bending force, the machine used electric power only. The year was 2003, so the technology was almost 10 years old at the time, but it had been somewhat slow to catch on, hindered by the machine cost. In this case, a single used Unison machine was advertised at $290,000, a fair bit more than the pair of hydraulic machines Krickeberg had purchased for $20,000.
Considering the setup time, bending accuracy, and bending consistency of electric technology, Krickeberg couldn’t pass it up. Seventeen years later, the machine is still running, and over the years he purchased six more Unison units.
Laser Cutting. Just as CO2 lasers revolutionized sheet metal fabrication, they were a boon to tube fabrication as well. While competing technologies often can make simple components faster than laser machines, lasers make up the difference with endless versatility and the elimination of time and cost associated with hard tooling.
When fiber lasers were introduced to the marketplace, they offered quite a few advantages over CO2 lasers—greater efficiency, faster cutting on thin-gauge materials, and an ability to cut materials that reflect the light generated by CO2 systems (red metals). In Sharpe’s pursuit to cut as wide a variety of materials as possible, it was an early adopter of fiber laser technology.
“I know a game-changer when I see one,” he said.
Built by Nissin Precision Machines Co., it carries out a process described as free-form bending. Although it can make tight-radii bends and bends with continuously varying radii, it’s not a replacement for other technologies. This machine complements other bending technologies, excelling at making extremely complex bends on small-diameter material.
Automated Inspection. Tools and systems abound for checking the dimensions and feature locations of fabricated tubular components and assemblies, from straightforward check fixtures to fairly sophisticated coordinate measuring machines..
Sharpe invested in a TubeInspect P16, a photogrammetric system made by Hexagon that combines speed, accuracy, and versatility. The user lays the part on the machine’s bed and a system of 16 cameras takes 16 unique images, which the software stitches together in a minute or two to make a composite. For long, lightweight tubular components, the system compensates for sag caused by gravity.
The system provides quite a bit of data, such as degree of bend, the locations of tangent points, and center-to-center dimensions. It also can be set up as a go/no-go gauge for a fast, no-frills interpretation of the part’s dimensional integrity. And, like other digital systems, it provides feedback for bend correction.
“Regardless of how far off the first piece is, the second is spot-on,” Krickeberg said. “We used to write every quote to cover the cost associated with four or five lengths of scrap. That’s now down to two. Furthermore, we used to guesstimate the causes of tolerance problems. Now we know where they lie.”
Sharpe’s main motivation in buying the system? Measurement speed.
“It doesn’t make sense to fabricate something quickly and inspect it slowly,” Krickeberg said.
In a side benefit, this system changed the way Sharpe prepares part drawings, simplifying the process. It provided a different perspective on the process of specifying a component’s dimensions and features.
“Our drawings are scaled way down these days,” Krickeberg said.
Bending, Part IV. Many tube or pipe benders work on a left-hand or right-hand bending principle only. Likewise, some bend in just one plane, so a lengthy component with several long legs might risk crashing into the floor or the bender itself unless the bends are planned carefully. In some cases, a partially bent part has to be removed from one machine to be finished on another, or rotated end-for-end and reinserted into the same machine.
A machine with two bending heads, one each for right- and left-hand bending, that can bend horizontally or inclined is immensely helpful for such applications. Sharpe found that BLM’s E-TURN machines, which have these features and provide fixed- or variable-radius bending in diameters up to 2 in., are a good fit.
Stamping. Most metal fabricators do a little bit of everything, including stamping. Many rely on small hydraulic presses, hand-fed and manually actuated. Setting up a full-blown stamping line and feeding the press from coil might be unusual for most small tube shops, but this is a central technology at Sharpe. Stamped parts make up an integral part of its handrail offerings, which provide about 25% of the company’s revenue.
The company recently upgraded its press capability with two servo presses, which allow extraordinary control over the motion profile. The company uses Komatsu model H1F presses, one each with 80-ton and 200-ton capability. They provide control over the slide velocity, stroke depth, and dwell while delivering about three times the working energy and consuming about one-third the power of a comparable mechanical press.
Bending, Part V. “We still have some Pines machines, but we’re phasing them out,” Krickeberg said. It’s not that hydraulic machines aren’t necessary; indeed, this technology was the mainstay for bending tube and pipe for decades and still is viable. The situation is one of economics. Sharpe relies on its older machines for high-volume orders, and this work isn’t as common in the U.S. as it once was.
“Larger orders are going overseas,” Krickeberg said. “Domestic fabricators have to focus on small orders and fast turnarounds.”
Storage Strategies. For companies that have a lot of vertical space and little horizontal space, a storage tower can be a big help. For a company that does a lot of stamping work, storing sheet metal on a tower system can help relieve congested floor space and simplify the process of retrieving material.
Krickeberg invested in tower unit from Kasto, but he didn’t stop there. When he saw how well the system keeps an assortment of raw materials organized and easy to recall, he bought another one for the items Sharpe has in the thousands: bender tooling sets.
The Proto-1 RAM-70 machine handles all manner of end forming processes, such as beading, coping, flaring, reducing, notching, and swaging. It can perform up to six processes without removing the tube from the machine.
When to Invest. When’s the right time to invest in a new technology? This is probably a cornerstone in the foundation of Sharpe’s success. Although some of Krickeberg’s decisions seem to be made on the spot, such as buying the Nissin bender right off the show floor at McCormick Place, this doesn’t mean that he’s impulsive or that his purchases are whims. He pays close attention to technology trends and avails himself of opportunities that others pass up.
“We invest in technology before we need it,” he said. He also invests in just a little more capacity than he really needs, especially in the critical role of bending. Having a little slack means that taking a machine out of service for a repair doesn’t throw the production schedule into turmoil.
And, “in some cases, we make tooling before we need it,” he said.
Building Expertise in Capabilities, Materials, and Markets
Along the way, Sharpe has expanded its capabilities to embrace essentially any and all processes in tube fabrication. It can furnish complex bent parts made with extreme precision; tight-radius bends made with sophisticated tooling and long, sweeping bends made on rolling machines; end-forms that stretch the material right up to its limits; laser-cut parts with endless combinations of holes, notches, and slots; and—because it has a Jenoptik-Votan BIM 5-axis laser cutting system equipped with fully articulated robotic arm—elaborate parts that don’t necessarily appear to be tubular in nature.
Embracing steel, stainless steel, aluminum, and red metals means that the company can serve diverse markets such as medical, dental, agriculture, aerospace, architecture, marine, retail, furniture, recreation, and commercial truck. It also means that Sharpe is as much a technical school as it is a company.
“We build bending and forming knowledge,” Krickeberg said. “Once in a while, we get a call from another bending shop asking for help in setup or troubleshooting. Some manufacturers might make 10 parts, so they know 10 setups, and they usually don’t have much trouble, so they’re light on troubleshooting knowledge. Some of our machine operators do 10 setups in the span of three days, so we have a substantial amount of accumulated forming knowledge.”
That area of expertise encompasses no small understanding of metallurgy. The company makes many catalog parts in carbon steel, stainless steel, and aluminum. To a nonmetallurgist, that might sound easy, but making identical parts from various materials takes quite a bit of understanding of material properties.
“Carbon steel, stainless steel, and aluminum all draw differently,” Krickeberg said.
The TubeInspect equipment offers real-time diagnostics and monitoring, allowing essentially immediate bend correction and decision-making.
Having fabrication equipment operators, machinists, and tool- and diemakers in-house means that Sharpe has a substantial amount of metals knowledge under its roof, and it just keeps accumulating. Such a reservoir of knowledge about the various metals and how they form is instrumental in making the dies to draw them properly, regardless of the metal to be drawn. Because the toolroom is in-house, die tryout and troubleshooting can be carried out more or less immediately. This, combined with the speed at which a tool and die set can be produced—usually a week, as opposed to the four- to six-week lead time Krickeberg estimates he’d need otherwise—provides distinct advantages over fabrication shops that don’t have captive tool-and-die departments.
Splitting the Company Into One
Like many fabrication shops, Sharpe had much of its equipment segregated by function—saws and laser cutting machines in one area, benders in another, stamping presses in yet another. Like many executive teams, the leaders at Sharpe realized that they were sinking far more time and money into indirect labor than necessary, moving parts around the shop. Sharpe was supposed to be a fabrication shop, not a material handling shop.
So in 2019 the company embarked on an ambitious plan to create workcells. It bought several new saws and put all of its saws, old and new, on casters for flexibility. This move put Sharpe in a position to create cutting-and-bending cells and modify them without much trouble.
At the same time, Sharpe’s leaders realized that maximizing efficiency would be a matter of segregating the handrail division from the custom bending division. Initially just four or five stock-keeping units (SKUs), the handrail portion of the business now comprises a fully formed product line that has SKUs in the thousands.
It would be a stretch to say that Sharpe Products is two companies under one roof—especially because it’s under two roofs—but strategically it makes sense that the company has two separate facilities.
“We use two specific sets of processes: high-volume and low-volume,” said Plant Manager Randy Krickeberg. The difference is far more than just order quantity and affects essentially every step in writing a quote. Determining the process steps, estimating the machine time, procuring the material, and establishing the price per piece are much more exacting exercises when the order quantity is in the thousands. The staff even runs through what-if scenarios, doing a sort of pre-emptive troubleshooting before trouble has a chance to emerge and throw plans into disarray.
“On high-volume parts, we have to work through every step of the process much more thoroughly, eliminating any potential trouble spots,” he said. For a low-volume part, quotes often have to be turned around in a matter of hours. On the high-volume side, it’s a completely different story.
“It can take an entire week to write a quote for a high-volume part,” he said.
The difference boils down to profitability. Nobody wants to make thousands of parts, or tens of thousands of parts, if the quote was a little low and profits are too slim to make the contract worthwhile.
Credit Where Credit is Due
While Paul Krickeberg’s main goal was to turn Sharpe into a one-stop shop, he also pursued a second goal, one that concerns the service-quality-price triad.
“To be competitive, you have to be the best at one of these and very good at the other two,” Krickeberg said. A business owner can’t simply purchase these capabilities; Krickeberg can invest in all of the equipment that he wants, but the machines don’t run themselves. High marks from customers in quality, service, and price come from good technology in the hands of a good staff, and Krickeberg acknowledges that he’s in debt to the 24 or so people on Sharpe’s production floors, the folks who work on the administrative side, and the many who have worked at Sharpe in the past.
In the early days, the staff was small, and the two owners’ wives helped build the business, working in customer service and in some cases helping to get jobs out the door. Each of the Krickeberg children have worked at the business, contributing to the company’s long history as it grew and evolved. Notable are Robbie Krickeberg, former machine operator, and Randy Krickeberg, who as plant manager is particularly hands-on regarding both the custom bending and the handrail fittings side of the business. One of Paul’s brothers, Tom Krickeberg, was also part of the business in the early days and still works in both bending and fabrication. Daughter Stacy Cramer, who was formerly vice president, also spent many years learning the business from bottom to top and eventually had responsibility for overall operations, including the company’s computer systems.
Although Nogalski sold his share of the company to Krickeberg some time ago, as lead estimator he still has a critical role in the company, and is a point person for technical consultation on customer projects. Also instrumental in the company’s history is Connie Byal, currently the sales and procurement manager and known otherwise for her knowledge and involvement in many roles over many years at Sharpe. To hear Krickeberg describe her career, she often supplemented the job she was hired to do with anything else she felt like doing, which was a lot. Imagine a hub around which most of the activities take place, and you’ve just imagined Byal’s role at Sharpe.
“She did sales and, well, everything else in the early days, both in the office and on the shop floor,” Krickeberg said. These days, in addition to procurement, she oversees the inventory of catalog parts that Sharpe produces. She also has an instrumental role in new part development, beginning with soliciting customer input and ending with creating new part numbers when drawings are finalized.
In terms of the company’s culture, Sharpe’s leadership always has stressed balance. Krickeberg credits a former boss for his tendency to limit the hours worked by most of the staff, keeping it to 40 when possible. Even when the company is running full-tilt and working additional hours, he never requires anyone to work on a Sunday. Krickeberg recalls delivering parts on a Sunday once in the distant past, a one-of-a-kind delivery made at the last minute so the customer would have it first thing on Monday morning, but that’s it. He started making efforts to protect the work-life balance long before it was a common theme in the workplace.
“My old boss used to say that if anyone was going to work additional hours, it should be the boss, not the staff,” Krickeberg recalled.
Did You Say Round?
Sooner or later, everyone involved with tube or pipe learns that round is an adjective, not a specification. Unless a fabricator purchases extruded products or drawn-over-mandrel material, some amount of ovality is a fact of life at the raw material stage, and it’s almost always a characteristic of fabricated tube and pipe components and assemblies.
Every tube fabricator has had to explain this, probably hundreds of times over a career, and on occasion a customer has to hear it two or three times before it sinks in. Krickeberg nearly lost a contract over this.
The customer was unsatisfied with an out-of-round part and apparently was also unsatisfied with Krickeberg’s explanation of ovality. After finding a different fabricator willing to make the part, the customer persisted in using the vague round rather than the specific percentage of ovality, and he received a not-quite-round part from that fabricator too. The message finally took, and when he contacted Sharpe again, Krickeberg was able to coax him to place his next order with Sharpe, maintaining the relationship.
Thirty years of leadership, an eye for good technologies, a willingness to invest in them continuously, an interest in embracing the risks that are necessary to get ahead, and an understanding of round versus ovality—not bad considering that Krickeberg himself has never bent a length of pipe.