Doug and Terri Sparks are shown with some of the material-handling pieces made from their Flex Craft tubing, which Doug Sparks calls his “Erector Set for big kids.” One thing that sets it apart is that it can be easily broken down and reconfigured for new jobs.
Dick Youngblood, Star Tribune
All coming together for Flex Craft
- Article by: DICK YOUNGBLOOD
- Star Tribune
- May 20, 2008 - 11:18 PM
WABASHA, MINN. - "This has been quite an adventure," mused Doug Sparks, as he contemplated the turbulent first year for his Wabasha-based company, Flex Craft.
The man has a gift for understatement.
In May 2007, Sparks, 42, and his wife, Terri, 41, began shipping what he calls his "Erector Set for big kids." It's square tubing, an inch across, with holes punched through at one-inch intervals to provide a simple, economical system for assembling the carts, shelving, workstations and other material-handling equipment used on a manufacturing floor.
Thus began a roller-coaster ride that included:
• Sales that grew quickly from $5,000 to $43,000 a month, reaching a six-month total of $170,000 by the end of October.
• A fire early in November that destroyed the Iowa manufacturing plant that was supplying the tubing, effectively shutting down Flex Craft and leaving the company with about $20,000 in unfilled orders.
• The January resumption of the eye-popping growth pattern, which pushed sales to a total of $320,000 in the first four months of 2008, including an April rush that hoisted the gross for the month to about $200,000.
Quite an adventure, indeed.
What's all the fuss about? Much like an Erector Set, the Flex Craft square tubing can be assembled with simple nut-and-bolt connections into an endless array of configurations for the benches, carts, shelving and flow-through stations (angled shelving with conveyor rollers to deliver materials automatically to workers) that form the skeleton of the manufacturing process.
There are similar systems on the market, Sparks said, but they offer a round tubing that requires a sizable inventory of connectors for each joint: corner, angle, caster and T-joints. By comparison, the tools required for the Flex Craft system include a half-inch wrench and a handful of 2 1/2-inch-long, 5/16th bolts to fit into the holes and join the Flex Craft sections. If a specific angle is required that the standard attachments won't provide, Sparks designed a simple universal joint to handle the job.
That's the appeal of the Flex Craft product, said Rob Hunt, a manager with Hearth & Home Technologies in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.
"There are fewer parts to be stocked," which reduces the cost, said Hunt, a "continuous improvement" manager assigned to the company's program for reducing waste and inefficiencies. But equally important, the Flex Craft system significantly reduces assembly time and cost.
"We ran a side-by-side comparison with another product and found that Flex Craft took less than half the time to assemble because of fewer connections," Hunt said.
Sparks said other manufacturers fashion their own equipment, spending even more expensive time cutting, deburring and welding tubing into the shapes needed for various materials-handling pieces. Or they buy the equipment if they can find the right sizes.
Either way, "it's expensive, and they still have the problem of the equipment becoming obsolete when new orders come in requiring a different configuration," Sparks said.
Sparks came by his concept after 20 years experience in manufacturing operations management and as a trainer and then a consultant in the continuous-improvement field, also known as "lean manufacturing."
The design he came up with is square tubing offered in precut lengths ranging in 6-inch increments up to 6 feet and, if required, painted in eight colors to accommodate color-coding required by some manufacturing processes. The cost: $2.20 a foot for the tubing, $2.50 if it's colored, plus additional charges for casters, conveyor sections and nuts and bolts. The painting is done by a company that owns Flex Craft's warehouse and occupies half the building. Sparks is set up to cut the various lengths at the Wabasha site and he plans to bring the hole-punching process to Wabasha this month.
Sparks introduced Flex Craft in April 2007 at a materials-handling trade show, but he said most of the growth since then has come as a result of contacts he has with others in the lean-manufacturing field and subsequent word-of-mouth.
Sparks and his wife bet their life's savings, about $150,000, on the concept and have managed to finance the spectacular growth internally since then. They have politely declined several offers from clients interested in investing in the company.
Their standard response: "Sorry, but our cash flow will fund our growth for the foreseeable future."
Dick Youngblood • 612-673-4439 • firstname.lastname@example.org
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