Colorado Springs, Colorado

Founder and President Joe Crandall is leveraging machine vision for automated inspection, processing, and packaging systems.

Photos Jonathan Castner

Crave Technical started out under a different name — Crandall Engineering — as “a one-person show” in a basement office, says Crandall.

“I spent 15-plus years as an engineer working in the medical device industry and advanced materials. I have a background in chemical engineering and chemical science.”

“I wanted to just go and be a consultant,” he says. “I started the company nights and weekends and did that for about three years. I was doing poorly at both things, so I had to give one thing up. I quit my very stable job and figured the least I could do was cover my bills.”

That was 2014. By 2018, Crave expanded from service provider to manufacturer and value-added reseller of automation equipment.

“At some point, business was so good, I either had to turn away work or I had to hire somebody,” says Crandall. “Eventually, we moved out of the basement and brought on some other people that allowed us to expand our operation, bringing in a mechanical engineer that could help design. And we became a UL 508A panel shop, which allowed us to go back to our current customers — we were just doing services for them — and ask them to outsource some of their builds to us.”

Now based out of a 8,000-square-foot facility, Crave Technical continues to offer engineering services, but the builds and panels represent about two-thirds of the business.

“We try to be industry-agnostic when we can,” says Crandall, citing work in central-fill pharmacies, medical device and semiconductor manufacturing, and food and beverage packaging. “We try to grow with our customers across multiple industries, so rather than attacking a vertical and selling to everybody in that industry, we like to find a partner that really knows that industry well and is growing, then we integrate with their leadership and engineering teams. As they grow, we grow, and it’s more of a partnership.”

No matter the industry, Crave’s specialty is automation that leverages machine vision. “If there’s a niche we really cover well, it’s machine vision so using cameras for inspection or measurement or vision-guided robotics,” says Crandall. “If we’re building a whole machine from top to bottom, it’s generally because our customers need a custom, very high-end inspection system that they couldn’t do themselves or isn’t readily available. We also work with other machine builders — they might not be experts in machine vision but they have an application where they need it, so they’ll outsource that to us and we’ll partner on a project.”

A case study: Crave automated the previously manual inspection of heat exchangers for lasers used in semiconductor manufacturing in spring 2022.

“They’re small parts and they were manually inspecting thousands and thousands of them, trying to find and classify defects,” says Crandall. “They went around to quite a few integrators trying to find somebody that could handle parts that small but also do the vision inspection system they needed. They really couldn’t find anyone who took the project seriously. We stepped in and designed and built a machine integrating a custom feeder that could manage the tiny parts but also high-end, vision-guided robotics to find them and to guide a robot to pick them, do the inspections, and then package them into a primary packaging object.”

He adds, “We’re quite proud of it, because we also had to integrate some equipment that wasn’t designed to be integrated, but we were able to figure it out, and the customer’s extremely happy with the project and are working now to their ROI.”

Crave’s core AutoBox software runs every machine the company builds. “It’s a way to hit the ground running with a lot of software tools that are needed on every machine,” explains Crandall. “It allows us, rather than starting from scratch, to work with a common set of tools that we can deploy almost immediately.”

Many customers are based in California’s Bay Area. “We spend a lot of time and really cultivate the business,” says Crandall. “Colorado, especially Colorado Springs, it’s a smaller market.”

Sales boomed until 2019, then the company took close to a 30 percent hit due to COVID-19 in 2020. But 2021 saw a 60 percent bounceback, and Crandall forecasts an “about flat” 2022.

“Part of that, I guess, is by design,” he muses. “We’ve grown to the point that we have to take a step back and build infrastructure and systems and hire people.”

Challenges: Crandall says supply chain is the biggest obstacle. “We’re dealing with lead times that used to be two or three weeks; now they can be a year or they can be TBD — ‘You’ll get it when you get it,'” he says. “It just makes production planning really challenging. We have equipment ready to go, sitting on the floor, just waiting for one or two components. . . . Anything with a microprocessor is a challenge, but then we’ll see things like circuit breakers or ball screw actuators, they’ll all go through their supply chain issue where it was fine, then all of a sudden, it’s six months.”

Another challenge: “Inflation’s been a problem. Trying to give a customer a quote, then in three months they’ll come back to purchase, but we’ve seen three price increases since that quote was released.”

Opportunities: Reshoring is fueling cross-industry growth for Crave. “I spent the first 10 years of my career watching things go to China, then the last 10 years watching things slowly return, and then the last couple years that really accelerating with the pandemic highlighting that we need the expertise here,” says Crandall. “The U.S. just doesn’t have the labor pool that these companies need to build and we don’t have the cost of living that fits with their business model. Being an industrial automation provider, it’s a really great opportunity that companies want to manufacture in this country, they want to grow here, but they can’t do it the way they’re doing it in China or elsewhere, so they’re looking to automate.”

Needs: Crandall puts employees at the top of the list. “Hiring and growing our team is a major challenge and a major need,” he says. “We can’t grow beyond our people. We can only grow when we have the right people in place.”