Launch Slideshow

A Trip To The Screwdriver Factory

A Trip To The Screwdriver Factory

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    David Frane_ToTT

    From the front, Klein’s facility in Lincolnshire, Illinois, looks like any corporate headquarters. But behind this building is an ultra-modern factory. Klein refers to it as a “plant”, as in a production plant. I can see why they do, because the facility bears little resemblance to what many of us think of when we hear the word factory. There are no smokestacks, no rail siding, and no soot-covered windows.

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    David Frane_ToTT

    The Lincolnshire plant was built six years ago to replace an older plant in Skokie (which is closer in to Chicago). It’s high-ceilinged and well lit by lights, skylights, and windows along the top of the wall. I wish I’d though to pace the thing off. It’s big. By the way, the plant isn’t haunted – the ghost-like figure on the left is a guy who stepped into the frame while I was taking a long-exposure photo. These shots were taken during lunch break so there was almost no one on the production floor – though some of the machines were still running because they’re computer-controlled. The computers are monitored from a control room above – which has windows that look out onto the floor.

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    David Frane_ToTT

    As far as I could tell nearly every machine in the factory is controlled by computer. Everywhere I went I saw control panels such as the one on this newer CNC (computer numeric control) machine. The older machines (not that there were very many of them) had similar panels.

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    David Frane_ToTT

    This is a production cell for Phillips screwdrivers. Once it’s set up and loaded with material it can run on its own. The machinery is fenced in for safety because there are a lot of rapidly moving parts that aren’t covered by housings.

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    David Frane_ToTT

    This coil of steel is being fed into machines that will straighten it, cut it, and begin the process of turning it into a screwdriver shaft. That red rag on the right is kind of funny. It’s there to prevent any oil or debris that is on the steel from getting into the machine. The fellow who was giving me the tour wanted to take it off before I took the photo because he was embarrassed to be using it. I told him not to bother, that it was a clever fix – the kind any tradesman might make on the jobsite. It’s not like you can order a factory out of a catalog; every factory is custom-built and is a work in progress.

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    Klein Tools

    The steel enters from the left and passes through a series of rollers that make it perfectly straight.

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    David Frane_ToTT

    Here the straightened steel is cut to length – the exposed part of the shaft plus the part that goes into the handle. Parts of this photo are blurred because the machine is moving quite rapidly.

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    Klein Tools

    The cut steel shaft is fed in from behind this lathe chuck and Phillips tip is machined onto the end of it. The shaft is sent from here to another machine for further processing.

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    David Frane_ToTT

    This is similar to the last machine; it’s a computer-controlled lathe being used to machine a square drive tip onto the end of a screwdriver shaft. It happens differently than you might think – there’s no stopping and starting to mill flats on each side. The chuck and cutting tool spin in a weird kind of unison and when they stop the end of the shaft has been milled square. I saw it happen several times and have no idea how the machine did it.

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    David Frane_ToTT

    It’s easier to understand how the tips of slotted screwdrivers are made. In this plant they stamp the end flat, send the piece out for plating, and then grind the tip to final shape. This is the machine that stamps the tip flat.

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    David Frane_ToTT

    Here are examples of slotted screwdriver tips before and after grinding. The one of the left has been stamped, sent out for plating, and then returned to the plant for the final grind. The one on the right has already been ground.

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    David Frane_ToTT

    There are more steps to making screwdrivers than I would have thought. The line of silver pieces running front to back in this photo are screwdriver shafts after stamping and plating (the same kind you saw in the previous photos). They’re being conveyed to the machine inside the cage for final grinding.

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    David Frane_ToTT

    Once inside the cage the screwdriver shafts are picked up by the industrial robot shown here and placed into the machine that will grind the tips to final shape.

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    David Frane_ToTT

    This is the end of the screwdriver that goes into the handle. Those wing-like projections were stamped into them to keep them from spinning within the handle. The nut-like piece welded onto the shaft on the right is a hex bolster, which can be used for wrench-assisted turning.

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    David Frane_ToTT

    Many of the components produced in this plant are sent elsewhere for intermediate and/or final processing. Heat treating and plating are done somewhere else, as is the application of handles and final packaging. The components on these racks have just come back from somewhere or are staged and about to go out.

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    David Frane_ToTT

    This is a bank of CNC machines. I’d tell which particular tools they are used to make but I don’t remember. And it wouldn’t matter – one of the beauties of CNC machining is that with minor changes to setup machines can be switched between products at will.

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    David Frane_ToTT

    Here are several batches of multi-driver bits that were machined by CNC. I can’t show you a photo of that process because so much cooling fluid is used that the view through the panel is like looking out the window of a vehicle while in a drive-through carwash. There’s simply nothing to see.

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    David Frane_ToTT

    Like every company that does machining, Klein recycles metal chips and shavings. The bin on the right contains clean chips and shavings – which have a certain value to metal recyclers. The bin on the left has been designated for swarf. I didn’t make that up; swarf is an actual thing. Swarf is turnings and chips that contain cutting fluids and contaminants that make them less valuable because they are harder to recycle. So obviously, you’d want to keep the two types of byproduct separate.

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    Klein Tools

    These pieces are about to become the business ends of nut drivers. When the machine on the pieces spin to the perimeter, are put in the correct orientation, and then channeled to the welding machine.

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    Klein Tools

    This machine is friction welding the socket end of a nut driver onto the hollow shaft. The shaft is being held in place by a clamp while the machine spins the socket against it fast enough and hard enough to melt the two pieces of metal together. The sparks are being produced by friction alone.

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    David Frane_ToTT

    The metal rods on the floor will be loaded into the hopper above (the part that says Mini Boss) and fed into the CNC machine on the far right side of the shot – to be machined into a conduit reamer that can be used in a drill or impact driver.

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    David Frane_ToTT

    Here is a batch of conduit reamers that have yet to receive their black oxide coating and replaceable blade.

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    David Frane_ToTT

    The piece on the left is a conduit reamer at an intermediate stage of production. The one on the right is complete and has received a black oxide coating, a hex shaft, and a removable blade and driving tip. It’s designed to be used in a drill or impact driver.

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    David Frane_ToTT

    This work table is on the factory floor. The drawers below contain various small parts for the machines. The calibration and measuring equipment on top are for setting them up and verifying they are producing to the correct specification.

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    David Frane_ToTT

    Here are some of the products produced in the Lincolnshire plant. Klein has seven U.S. plants: Lincolnshire, IL; Elk Grove Village, IL; Mansfield, TX; Fort Smith AR; Bolivar, NY, Cedar Rapids, IA; and Rockford, MI. According to the company website there is a plant in Mexico that produces for the Mexican and Central American markets. I looked at the packaging of some of Klein’s multi-drivers and they were made in Taiwan. It’s unclear if the company owns that plant.

Before my last trip to the Midwest I called Klein Tool and asked if they would give me a tour of one of their plants because I knew they had some in the Chicago area. They said, "Sure, come to or headquarters and we'll show you the plant where we make screwdrivers."

On the day of the visit I drove to Lincolnshire, Illinois. When I turned into the road where Klein is located I thought maybe I'd written down the wrong address because it didn't look like the sort of place a factory would be. I was expecting smokestacks and train tracks and instead I was seeing low-rise warehouses and office buildings. At the end of the road was a sign for Klein and when I pulled into the lot I saw a modern office building with the company logo above the entry. I had the right place, but where was the factory? That question was answered when went around the corner to park. Connected to the back of the office building was a huge nearly windowless structure with a loading dock. It was obviously a factory – albeit a modern one without smokestacks or a rail siding.

Before entering the factory I met with some folks in a conference room and they filled me in on the company. Aside from all of the tools it produces, the most interesting thing about Klein is its history. The company was founded in Chicago in 1857 by Matthias Klein, a German immigrant who ran a forge. The first tool he ever made was a pair of pliers for a telegraph linesman. If you're ever wondered why Klein is so strongly associated with the electrical and communications trades – well, that's where it comes from. Another interesting thing about Klein is that it is owned and managed by the descendants of the man that founded it. One of the people I met during my visit was Mark Klein, a 6th generation descendant of the founder and one of many family members who work for the company.

And now – on to the tour of the Lincolnshire plant, which in addition to producing screwdrivers produces nut drivers, driver bits and a number of other hand tools and power-tool accessories.