There are roughly 140,000 Colo radans working in manufacturing, according to data from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.
They're welders, machinists and engineers; designers, sewers and painters; luthiers, brewers and fly-rod fabricators; and, yes, even some butchers, bakers and candlestick makers.
To say this is a diverse group is an understatement, with abilities to craft and create with high precision and artful skill.
Manufacturing talent is in demand in Colorado, but the pipeline isn't close to filling the industry's needs. Since offshoring accelerated in the 1990s, there's been a widening disconnect between educational curriculum and the necessary skills for manufacturing jobs; however, there's an ongoing push to close the gap, both locally and nationally.
Then there are the human stories behind the skill sets and physical objects. People are not purely what they do; Made in Colorado embodies the spirit of who they are and how they do it. Meet 10 makers who help drive Colorado's economy.
OME Banjos, Boulder
Lured by mountains to ski and climb, Sharpies, 53, traded New Jersey for Colorado in 1989. "I was obsessed with Colorado as a kid," he says.
As an adult, he parlayed his woodworking experience into what is now a 27-year career. "Believe it or not, I found a Help Wanted ad in The Denver Post looking for a luthier," he says.
Sharpies had given guitar-making a shot as a teenager, but he had never made a banjo before OME founder Chuck Ogsbury hired him. The move paid off as Sharpies dedicated himself to the craft from day one.
But that doesn't mean he took years and years of banjo-making classes. "I'm self-taught," he says. "It was before the Internet, so I also read a lot of magazines."
While master luthier is a moniker he shies away from--"I still feel like I'm learning, for sure," he says--Sharpies has had a hand in making thousands of banjos in his tenure at OME. He now supervises two other luthiers, and the team crafts about 180 high end banjos a year at the company's shop in northeast Boulder.
"The hardest thing is the neck," Sharpies says. "I used to do 120 in a batch, which was hard. We do it a lot different now." Hand-carving has given way to CNC routers cutting the neck, but there's still plenty of hand work involved in an OME Banjo.
After the neck comes the rim. OME makes those in-house, outsourcing some manufacturing. Both pieces require a good deal of rasping and sanding before they're ready for finishing. Once the oil or lacquer is dry, it's time for final assembly with premium metal parts sourced from a slew of different suppliers.
While the banjo market has been fairly steady, the styles have changed repeatedly in his three decades on the job. "When I started, we were doing a lot of four-string banjos," he says. "We're doing a lot of open-back banjos now. Bluegrass kind of tanked. It tanked with the market."
And the shifting market has pushed the entire industry toward bigger catalogs. "Everybody had to start diversifying," Sharpies says.
Likewise, his musical tastes are varied. "I listen to everything," he says, laughing. "I listen to heavy metal more than anything."
MADE In CO Award finalists
Winners will be announced March 3 at the 2016 Made in Colorado Manufacturing Forum and posted online at cobizmag.com.
Most Innovative Manufacturer
The Loveland-based manufacturer makes a variety of instruments to test water quality. The company has won kudos from industry experts and has plans to expand in Love land with an86,000-square-foot R&D center set to open in 2017, / www.hach.com
The Lakewood company is a global leader in the collection and processing of blood. Recent innovations include asystem that reduces the chance of malaria infections during transfusions and a cost-effective manufacturing system to produce adult stem cells./ www.lerumobc!.com
BAMBOO FLY-ROD MAKER
South Creek Ltd., Lyons
After serving in the military, Clark moved to Lyons to get away from the crowds in Denver. "Too big, too much, just too many people," says the 68-year-old Lakewood native.
Lyons had less chaos, plus one very important lure: "It had a river in it," says Clark.
So he moved there and started working as a construction superintendent before his career making premium fly rods took root in 1979.
"I wanted a bamboo rod and couldn't afford one, so I made one of my own," Clark says.
He made a few more for friends before he sold one in 1982. "One day, a guy wandered into my garage and said, 'How much?' It kind of baffled me: 'I could sell these?'"
He went full-time in 1988, moved into a shop on Main Street in 1990 and expects to ship his 1,000th rod by the end of 2016. He worked solo until 1998, when Kathy Jensen joined him doing silk work and helping manage a growing backlog of orders, especially impressive considering Clark's poles now sell for about $3,000.
As Clark earned an international reputation, the wait-time for one of his rods grew from three years to six years by 2008, and South Creek stopped taking orders for four years. When it restarted in 2012, the operation was deluged with 88 orders--about twice the annual capacity. "Back in the hole," laughs Clark.
The ordering process starts with an interview, and the first question is, "Have you ever fished with bamboo?"
If the answer is no, Clark advises them to try a bamboo rod and get back with him. If the response is affirmative, he digs into their fishing style and locale to determine the taper of the pole, the stiffness of the tip, and other features. "I can tweak a taper to make it do what the client wants," Clark says.
Then he makes the pole with Tonkin bamboo cane imported from China, exotic woods, and nickel silver hardware.
The Tonkin bamboo "has a tensile strength stronger than steel," Clark says, but nonetheless only a fraction cut the mustard for his purposes. After finding suitable sticks, he meticulously crafts the tapered pole from six equilateral triangles of cane and glues them into a singular rod.
Clark has five to seven orders under construction at any time, and it usually requires 10 or more weeks after the initial interview to complete and ship one.
"I learned from books in 1979," he says. "There was no Internet, but there was a library. Reading is great, but you don't get that feel for it until you're hands-on."
But backlog be damned, work sometimes takes a back seat to throwing a line in the St. Vrain River. "OK, it's 4 o'clock--get your waders and we'll go fish for a couple hours," says Clark of his and Jensen's approach. "You get rid of this electronic hum that's all around...