A Look Inside the New Klein Heat Treatment Plant
I had the opportunity to tour Klein Tools’ Manufacturing Headquarters and attend the grand opening of their Heat Treatment Facility in Mansfield, Texas. Klein focuses heavily on the electrical and utility industry when designing tools and remains committed to manufacturing in the United States. With the two manufacturing plants now in Texas, Klein has brought over 200 jobs to the local community. Currently, Klein has over $100 million planned for further US based manufacturing. This commitment is representative of their desire to move the small portion of the process that is currently overseas into the US – an idea that is completely opposite of the current trend among major companies. For a more thorough look at the Klein story and commitment, take a look at “Made in America: The Klein Tools Story” that we published previously.
This story, though, is about the process, the details, and the pictures that tell the manufacturing story, so let’s get started!
We got to see how Klein starts with a 40 pound bar of steel and turn it into the opposite ends of of a set of Klein pliers. The process used heats these steel bars to working temperature in about 7 seconds. When the handles are cut out of the steel, the tolerance for variation is only 5/1000″, making an extremely precise and repeatable tool. Notice after the handles are cut out, there is a lot of leftover material. Klein recycles this to the tune of about 10,000 pounds each month.
Not surprisingly in this day and age, the forging process is controlled by computers. No doubt that Mathias Klein would have been amazed to see the improvement in efficiency while maintaining quality compared to his blacksmith shop in 1857 Chicago.
Robots will machine the left and ride sides of each tool at the same time before dropping them in the rivet press. This ensures a perfect fit that gives Klein tools the zero handle wobble that we love. Following the rivet press, each tool is hot welded and moved on down the line. Here, we see the stages of separate handles, riveting, welding, polishing, and packaged for shipment.
Once the tools have completed the forging and assembly processes, one of the last steps is to polish it before the handles are attached and it is inspected. Like any good sanding process, the tool will go through a course grind first and be finished on a fine grind to polish it.
The Journeyman handles (the black and yellow ones) are injection molded at Klein’s Michigan facility and then shipped to Texas for assembly. At the top, we see the products produced here in Texas before they are polished and the handles are attached along side the finished products ready to ship.
For tools that will not receive an injection molded handle, they are dipped to have the handle cooled directly onto the handles.
Klein’s insulated tools are rated to 1000 volts. Just to make sure each tool can actually handle that, every one is tested in a tank like this and has 10,000 volts run through it!
Although we often take it for granted, every tool goes through an evolution of prototypes that are tested, refined, and perfected before it reaches store shelves. Here is the evolution of Klein’s All-Purpose Pliers.
The following day, we had the chance to tour the Heat Treatment facility. Why heat treatment? During the forging process, the tools are still relatively soft. The heat treatment process hardens the steel to give the nearly unbreakable characteristic we’ve come to expect. David Klein gave us our first glimpse into the facility.
Once the tools are delivered to the facility, the first stage is to go through a pre-wash to get rid of any debris that may have been collected along the way.
Following the pre-wash cycle, each tool is heated to roughly 1600 degrees for 1 – 2 hours. They are then submerged in oil that rapidly brings the temperature down to 140 degrees which helps maintain the chemical integrity. From there, a post wash takes the residual oil off before a temper furnace reheats the tools to 400 degrees which eliminates the brittleness of the steel. Finally, the tools go through a bluing process and are sent a few miles down the road to get handles and be laser engraved.
While an endothermic gas replaces all the oxygen in the furnace eliminating the chance of open flame, sometimes it’s necessary to throw oxygen and nitrogen into the mix for burn off purposes. The result of that is quite simply much cooler to look at.
From start to finish, the entire heat treating process takes about 6 hours. One thing that definitely stood out during the tour was that only about half the the facility has equipment on it. The other half is empty space. While I personally would be tempted to start a company roller hockey league, Klein has plans to expand into that space. They currently are only treating pliers there, but that space will allow them to move the screwdriver and other tool treatment from Illinois under the same roof in Mansfield.