A Trip to the Leatherman Factory

This is the entrance to Leatherman headquarters. Offices occupy a small area near the front of the 90,000 square-foot facility—most of which is factory. I wanted to show the entire building, but it’s 600 feet long and I could not get far enough back to get the whole thing into a single photo. You can see it here

from the air; the entrance is the recessed area in the left third of the building. The very first Leatherman tools were produced by hand in a garage machine shop but when orders began to flow in Tim Leatherman and his business partner, Steve Berliner, built a facility on this site in 1983. The facility has since been expanded a couple of times.

Leatherman has approximately 500 employees, 400 of whom work in this factory. The company does not perform every operation here. They send certain parts (like blades) out for heat-treating by a company in nearby Milwaukie, Oregon. Tools are packaged at a Leatherman-owned plant a few miles away from the production facility.

Many of the parts in a Leatherman tool start out as 800-pound coils of steel. This steel was made in Ohio, and will be fed into one of the many punch presses inside the plant. Other parts are laser-cut from flat sheets of steel or forged by outside vendors.

The black machine is pulling steel off of the coil and feeding it into a punch press that is off to the left. Similar setups can be seen all over the factory with different kinds of punch presses.

Here are just a few of the Komatsu punch presses at one end of the building.

This is looking into the “business end” of one of the smaller Komatsu punch presses. The dies are attached to the flat steel slabs above and below the vertical posts. When the upper die comes down it punches pieces from the strip of steel. The tool part slides down the ramp on the left while the waste comes out the front and lands in the bin in the foreground ( click here for video).

These pieces were punched out by the dies in the previous photo. They are called scales, which is the name for the decorative pieces on the outside of a folding knife or multi-tool.

This is the waste from a different punching operation. The dies are designed to maximize yield and yet it’s apparent that about half of the steel ends up as waste. Leatherman recycles all of this stuff. And why not—it’s valuable material.

This giant machine is a progressive punch press, which performs multiple operations to the same piece of metal. The first time the dies come down they might form a particular shape. The next time they come down they might punch a few holes, fold the edges, or punch the piece out. The dies for this thing were massive, a series of pieces bolted onto a pair of steel slabs about 2” thick by 2’ wide by 7’ long. I’d show you a picture but dies are the one thing in the factory I was not permitted to photograph.

These side handles for the Wave 2 were punched, folded, and formed by the progressive press in the previous photo. Note the paperwork that goes with the parts; it contains a description as well as a bar code that allows the company to track the progress of components as they go through the factory.

When a die punches a piece from a strip of steel it leaves a sharp burr on the edge. Burrs are removed by putting the pieces into a tumbler filled with ceramic pellets and a slurry of grit and water. The tumbler vibrates violently, churning the contents together and wearing the burrs off and putting a polish onto the pieces ( click here for video).

A magnet is used to remove the pieces from the slurry. After that they are rinsed clean or placed into a second tumbler for rinsing and polishing by a different type of ceramic pellet ( click here for video).

It’s part of the Leatherman look to mix highly polished and matt finished pieces. These bags of glass beads will be fed into a bead blaster and used to put a matt finish onto pieces that became polished as a result of tumbling.

Different parts of a Leatherman tool are made from different kinds of material—some of which is too thick or hard to be punched by a press. This computer-controlled laser is used to cut pieces such as premium knife blades ( click here for video).

These replaceable jaws for wire cutters are made from material that’s too hard and thick to run though a punch press so they were cut with the computer-controlled laser shown in the previous photo. A few of the pieces popped out of the sheet on their own; the rest will be removed by a production worker.

These knife blades have been roughly ground to shape, heat-treated, and bead blasted—in preparation for further grinding and then final sharpening.

These are the knife blades you saw in the previous photo. They have been strung onto a metal rod that will be placed into a fixture within reach of the industrial robot that will grind them to their final shape.

A DeWalt die-grinder has been adapted for use in the factory. It contains a sort of chamfering bit the operator uses to smooth the edges of the thumb notch used to flip a blade out one-handed. There is a screen built into the bench; it probably covers a vacuum intake intended to collect metal filings. As you can see, it doesn’t get them all. That blue filter-like material on the end of the tool was probably put there to keep metal filings from getting into the motor. This is one of the few non-automated machining operations I saw in the plant.

This computer-controlled punch press is more typical of what one sees in Leatherman’s highly mechanized plant. Still, the assembly work is done by hand because robots are simply not up to doing it.

Parts must be positioned in this riveting machine by hand. My tour guide works in the office but as part of her training she had to spend a couple of hours operating this machine (and others) so she would know what she was talking about.

I wish I had the contract to provide plastic bins to Leatherman, because they use a lot of them in the factory. These bins contain partially processed pieces. The orange tags on the bins contain information about what is in the bins and a bar code that can be scanned as the bins move around the plant so the operators know where batches of pieces are and what has been done to them. You see these stacks of bins all over the place.

These plier jaws were forged at another facility and must be riveted to mating pieces, ground, polished, and otherwise processed before being attached to finished tools. Pliers are the central feature of most Leatherman tools. Why? Because Tim Leatherman (an engineer by training) came up with the idea for the multi-tool while traveling around Europe in a bomber Fiat in the 1970s; when things broke (and they often did) he repaired them with a Boy Scout knife and found himself wishing for a pair of pliers.

Here an industrial robot grabs an assembled pair of plier jaws and grinds them to finished shape. The photo does not do it justice; click here to see a video of the robot in action.

Quality control is an important part of production process, be it carpentry or tool-making. These sample boards are hung on the guard cage as a reminder—though really, everyone who works in the production cell can tell by looking when something is not right. Just in case, samples are pulled during various stages in the production process and sent to an area where technicians measure parts and examine them under a magnifying glass to make sure they are within spec.

This end of the plant contains an assembly area and some industrial robots. Click here for a video of the action. There are very few people on the floor because this was shot during lunch break.

Here’s an assembly station. The thing hanging down the industrial screwdriver used to fasten replaceable wire cutters into the plier heads.

It’s easy to identify the parts at this assembly station; there’s a knife blade, file, and screwdriver. The hollow pieces in the center are rivets. The piece on the right, with the vertical post, is an assembly jig.

This bin contains finished Leatherman “Rebar” model multi-tools.

The bins on these carts contain various finished tools that will be shipped to a nearby Leatherman plant for packaging. From there the tools will be shipped to distributors and vendors.

This is an automated tool crib. Workers access hand tools by swiping their badge with a scanner: The doors open and the worker takes what he or she needs. The crib contains software that tracks what was taken, when it was taken, and whether or not the person who borrowed it put it back. It can tell what was taken because it has a built-in scale and knows the weight of every tool it contains.

This Leatherman themed car was parked in front of the factory. I included it because it reminds of something I heard during my visit—that Tim Leatherman, who can afford any kind of car he wants, drives a Subaru. That he drives such an unassuming car seems sort of fitting. After all; he came up with the idea for a multi-tool built around pliers after traveling through Europe in the 1970s and wishing he’d had more tools available to repair the old Fiat he was driving.

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