May 18, 2021

Professional Tool Reviews for Pros

KEEN Utility Factory Tour – Making Boots in the USA

KEEN Utility Factory Tour boxing the shoes

It’s clear people love the idea of products manufactured in the USA. We’ve toured the DeWalt North Carolina manufacturing plant facility, the Milwaukee Greenwood Plant, and the Southwire Wire wire-making plants in Georgia. Our recent tour to the KEEN Utility factory in Portland, Oregon allowed us to do something we haven’t done before: make some boots. There’s nothing more fun than getting to participate in the process of actually making boots in the USA. While there, we also took the opportunity to get to know the staff and explore various parts of their company. That included the headquarters, their factory, and even the local KEEN store where they sell products.

Making KEEN Utility Boots

We got to make KEEN Utility Logandale Waterproof Boots. These are black steel toe boots with a synthetic upper and a direct-attach PU (polyurethane) midsole. This is what KEEN Utility boots look like before assembly (note the uppers shown here are the Braddock):

uppers before PU outsole rubber outsole

The first step in the process sorts the incoming boots and shoes so as to correctly place them into the assembly system. Not all KEEN Utility footwear can be assembled here in the United States. An example would be the models with Goodyear welt designs. Those require special double-stitching to attach the sole to the upper.

putting upper on the last

Each upper is fit to the correctly-sized last. The “last” is the form that represents the proper shoe size (or foot size, really). It makes up the “secret sauce” behind the KEEN fit and allows the consistency you find in every pair of boots or work shoes. KEEN Utility uses a last that is larger in the toe area since they form their protective toes (composite, aluminum, and steel) around the last. Left and right shoes are also uniquely shaped. Many other manufacturers will shave down the toe area to accommodate the extra room required by a protective toe. Others use a single last for both feet.

As we participated in the process, our chief job involved taking the uppers, attaching the soles to them, and ensuring proper cleanup and packaging. After placing the uppers of the KEEN Utility Logandale boots onto the correct last, they made their way to a new machine. Here, we saw them prepped, heated, and secured to the midsole/rubber outsole.

PU outsole applicator machine wide shot

Prepping and Attaching the Outsole

The machine occupies a significant amount of space. What might be more impressive, however, is the coordination that goes into making sure everything occurs in sequence. Each upper requires the properly-sized last. Each outsole requires the properly-sized mold. Everything, of course, must take place in the right order. The floor manager keeps everything on track. Frankly, we think he deserves a raise…

After the automated arms of the machine spray a release agent onto the mold, the system rotates and positions the sole above the mold containing the sole. Once ready, an operator manually triggers the heating element to superheat the sole.

PU application - heating

The next step in our KEEN Utility factory tour involved watching the machine drive the Logandale upper down onto the midsole and clamp down overtop the toe. This locked everything in place and ensured a secure fit.

PU application - pressing

With the boot now basically formed, it continued on to a brief inspection for any obvious flaws.

PU application - removing shoe

Trimming and Cleaning

After we removed our KEEN Utility Logandale boots from the machine, we took them to a new station. There, we manually cut away the excess polyurethane that “squeezed” out the sides as the sole formed onto the boot.

trimming excess PU 2

Almost finished! We took the boots to an important station where the KEEN Utility staff showed us how to clean them up. We removed burrs and other imperfections present from the process of applying the outsole.

cleaning up the shoe

Finally, we packaged the boots for shipment…we might have had some help here.

KEEN Utility Factory Tour boxing the shoes

Wrapping Up Our KEEN Utility Factory Tour

It’s always good to get a feel for how things work. In the case of our KEEN Utility factory tour, we didn’t see hundreds of employees sewing together leather uppers and lacing boots. What we did see, however, was a thriving factory in the heart of Portland that was doing great work. We also saw happy employees. As a business owner myself, that means a lot. They seem to care quite a bit about quality control, and we’re looking forward to seeing the new KEEN Utility boot styles we previewed in Portland. I’m just glad I didn’t have to sew together leather uppers…the trip might have taken several more days.


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