Staying Sharpe with Laser
The speed of light is 299,792,458 meters per second, which theoretically nothing can exceed. However, the speed of customer requirements—especially when it comes to product delivery—can be a close second for manufacturers. Luckily, New Berlin, Wis.-based Sharpe Fabrication Inc. (known as Sharpe Products) has the right technology to keep pace: lasers. In fact, short lead times are a specialty for the company, according to Paul Krickeberg, CEO and president.
To stay ahead of demand, Sharpe Products makes sure to have the latest in laser cutting and tube bending, thanks in no small part to its partnership with BLM Group, an Italian manufacturer of laser systems with subsidiaries in North America and other regions.
Sharpe Products is adding two BLM LT7 4 -kW laser-cutting systems to its Milwaukee-area facility this spring. The new machines will replace the company’s existing 1- and 3-kW equipment, purchased in 2012 and 2015, respectively, to help standardize its laser-cutting operations while increasing production output and flexibility.
“This machine technology will allow us to stay ahead of customer demand for precision tube-laser-cutting services, and to maintain the short lead times we are known for in the industry,” Krickeberg said.
Founded in 1990, Sharpe Products specializes in custom pipe and tube bending, laser cutting, end forming, and related fabrication for industrial and commercial applications. The company also offers a line of architectural commercial-grade handrail fittings and components such as metal handrail brackets, caps and disks, connectors, flanges, newel caps, and spheres.
The new lasers will join an existing BLM LT7 system and an LT FREE multi-axis, laser-cutting machine in Sharpe Products’ custom tube-bending and laser-cutting plant. The company’s other facility, where it manufactures architectural handrail fittings and components line, utilizes a BLM LS5 flat sheet laser for cutouts prior to stamping.
“For the sectors (Sharpe Products) targets, tube bending and laser cutting was a natural match. They were an early adopter of the technology that BLM has continued to bring to market across the board,” said Gunar Gossard, director of sales at BLM Group USA, Novi, Mich.
Sharpe Products supplies products to companies in virtually every end market. It’s customer list includes firms in aerospace, agriculture, automotive, medical and life sciences, food and beverage, furniture and fixtures, and recreational/outdoor equipment, as well as metal fabrication.
“We see a lot of market activity from manufacturers, large metal fabricators, and OEMs. Many of these companies require custom tube bending and/or tube-laser cutting for their projects, but may not be able to justify the personnel, machinery, or tooling needed. We can fill that niche for them, offering a reliable, turn-key source for this service,” said Krickeberg.
Sharpe Products has enjoyed a recent growth spurt. In 2021, the company expanded its second facility by about 17,000 sq ft. (1,580 sq m). The company currently has 40 employees, most of whom work in the main custom tube-bending and laser facility. Both plants are located about 15 minutes outside of Milwaukee, providing prototype to full-scale production.
Like most manufacturers, Sharpe Products has had to deal with recent industry disruptions and challenges. The company acquires the raw materials for most of its projects itself, and must manage around supply chain shortages. Additionally, tube bending is a specialized business and experienced employees can be hard to find. At the same time, customer are requiring shorter lead times—an area of particular focus for Sharpe Products.
“The addition of the new tube-laser-cutting systems supports this focus and allows us to increase throughput and reduce lead times on customer orders,” Krickeberg said. “Overall, we wanted to increase output capacity and speed with newer technology, helping to enhance the movement of parts through our manufacturing facility.”
With a continued emphasis on quality and production speed, it’s no surprise that lasers are Sharpe Products’ tools of choice. According to the company, laser processing provides a quicker and more efficient way to cut features in tube and pipe, or to cut parts to length, versus standard machining and sawing operations.
“Almost any tube or pipe that can be bent in our facility may also need laser cutting, including fuel and hydraulic lines for the aerospace, automotive, and agricultural industries,” explained Marshall Arndt, a manufacturing engineer at Sharpe Products.
He said the company works on “many relatively light, structural applications” for cross bracing and frame rails, architectural and industrial railings, posts and pickets or spindles, bushings and spacers for automotive and agricultural applications where standard tube and pipe sizes are used, and recreational applications for park and playground equipment.
The emphasis on shorter lead times became more crucial as Sharpe Products entered new markets that required higher-volume production. According to Gossard, the LT7 allows Sharpe Products to cover a wider range of products and take “that next step” in technology.
“We were looking to have faster machines than our two older fiber-optic lasers, specifically targeting to reduce setup times and run times,” Arndt said. “Customers were looking for true miter cuts and chamfering, as well as larger rectangle and square capabilities. These machines allow for up to 45° off-axis cutting and 6” (152.4 mm) square tube processing.
“The machines have updated bundle loaders that can handle several bundles of raw material depending on the overall size and weight,” he continued. “Once the job is set up in a machine, it might self feed and run for a full 10-hour shift with an operator used only to offload a finished product.”
The LT7 can cut round, square, and rectangular tubes, special sections, and open profiles weighing as much as 23 kg/m and with a diameter from 12 mm to 152.4 mm, according to BLM. Production startups and changes are entirely automatic, independent of the operator’s level of expertise. At the end of each batch, the machine configures itself for the next one: The loader, rear spindle, front steady rest, and intermediate supports adapt automatically to the new sections to be made from round, square, special, and even open profiles.
“The ability to cover the full range of products without having to manually adjust anything when you change from, say, a 2 x 2 to a 4 x 4, as an example, or from a round to a square in the production system, the machine is set up to automatically do that with minimal human intervention,” Gossard said. “Again, keeping that productivity at the highest level within the shop.”
When it comes to increasing production speed, the power of the machine is not to be overlooked. According to Arndt, the 4-kW lasers have more power to cut through both thick and thin materials faster.
“The maximum raw material size can be increased with a different workholding hardware and increased load capacity,” Arndt said. “These new machines are roughly 20% faster than our 3-kW fiber laser, and, in most cases, much more than that when comparing them to the 1-kW machine. These machines are able to cut true miters compared to standard perpendicular-to-surface cuts as on the other machines (that are being replaced).”
In addition to the new tube-laser-cutting units, Sharpe Products is also installing a new BLM ELECT 52 tube-bending machine to augment its custom tube-bending services.
With tube diameters ranging from 40 mm to 150 mm, the ELECT family of benders have multiple tool-stack capabilities and can produce both fixed and variable radius bends. A maximum of eight toolsets can be mounted simultaneously within the stack height. In addition, the machine is supported by a bending program that saves all information about the part, machine, and tooling, minimizing the setup time and skill level needed to bend accurate parts.
“We have numerous tube-bending machines at our company; the recent addition of the ELECT 52 will allow us to free up capacity on our E TURN 52 in-process left- and right-hand machines,” Krickeberg noted.
BLM has provided tube-bending and laser-processing solutions to manufacturers for more than 60 years, so when Sharpe Products first looked into installing a laser cutting system in 2012, the path forward was clear.
“When we decided to purchase our very first laser-cutting systems, BLM Group was one of the initial companies we researched—we could see how advanced they were with their machine technology and operating software,” Krickeberg said. “And, because of their company’s depth of knowledge of both tube bending and tube laser cutting, we found them to be a good fit.”
With a global presence and more than 800 employees, BLM considers itself a full-line partner for complete tube processing, from laser cutting to cold saw, bending, end-forming, and measurement. “BLM is one of the early founders of this laser technology. We’ve lived it, we’ve seen it. We’ve experienced many different customers using the machines,” Gossard asserted.
Along with installation, BLM provides initial in-person training and additional sessions as needed. Follow-up visits, service programs, and call-in options for service are available.
For Sharpe Products, the latest upgrades are just another step in a long-running partnership.
“Over the years we’ve become familiar with the functionality and operating systems of the BLM equipment,” Krickeberg said. “As a company, BLM has been a good partner for us; we have been happy with the reliability of the equipment and the service we’ve received.”
For more information about Sharpe Products visit https://www.sharpeproducts.com or call 262-754-0369. For more information about BLM Group visit https://www.blmgroup.com/en-us or call 248-560-0080.
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