A Trip To The Screwdriver Factory

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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