HQ: "The Best Stuff out There"
My tour began at KEEN's Portland-cool, sustainable headquarters, just across the river from the manufacturing center, to learn the history, future, and culture of KEEN Utility and KEEN Inc.
Chris Heffernan, general manager of the KEEN PM factory, said it best:
"We're just trying to make the best stuff out there... Boots make need to make feet feel good all day at work. But, it's more important than only getting through the work day. These customers are doing some amazing stuff outside of work, too. We try to celebrate that and respect that. The company is trying to do the right thing, helping with the environment, and all that bleeds over into respecting everyone's life outside work."
The Right Fit
The first lesson was what makes a KEEN boot, a KEEN boot. There's the process, of course, injection molding the midsole to hold the unit together (rather than stitching or glue), rigorous testing, etc.
But Heffernan added another angle to it:
"KEEN was founded around this idea of fit. The Newport sandals and our first hikers were really different looking, but they made sense because they're shaped around the shape of a foot. A shoe should fit you; you shouldn't be forcing your foot into it. Shoes should facilitate how your foot was meant to be."
For me, though, this was the first sign of that something special. Right in the entrance of the main lobby of the company's new, sustainably-built headquarters was a bar. Built of reclaimed wood from the reconstruction process, stocked with local brews, and surrounded by notes about KEEN culture and KEEN values, it made a clear point: this company is trying to do something different.
Rock 'em Sock 'em
There was also this, sitting outside a conference room. The greatest post-meeting stress-reducer ever? I'd say so. We need one of these at NED.
Time to Make the Boots
And, after a short van ride across the Willamette River, we hit the KEEN PM (Portland Manufacturing) Plant, where all the magic happens.
First stop, the testing room. The company checks, rechecks, every conceivable part of their boots here. From flex tests (seen here) to impact tests on the toe caps, water-proofing, even eyelets.
For this one, they let me set up sole (on the left) on the flex test where, if all goes well, it should continue to flex and move, simulating miles of walking, to ensure each batch meets KEEN standards.
But of course I set it up wrong and it flopped out after about four cycles.
The Factory Floor
There are two lines on the floor, currently, both of them arranged in a U-shape, with teams prepping the uppers and outsoles of unassembled boots on one end, and a cluster of finishers polishing, inspecting, and boxing the final product on the other. Between them, at the bend, is a giant rotating injection molding machine that puts it all together.
Giant display boards float overhead telling the teams the numbers they have to hit and their progress. These boards are terrifying, suddenly. If they're putting me on the line like they say they are, these metrics are about to fall hard. If I screw this up, these people are going to be scrambling for the next six hours to catch up.
First job: fitting the uppers onto fixtures for the injection molding machines.
The pros at this station use this custom-made crowbar to fit these over the fixtures and make sure they are locked in place. But I guess they wanted to show us how difficult it really is, so I went in with bare hands and brute force. The lesson: manufacturing is hard and I am a skill-less weakling.
But, I managed to get them on—using my full weight with each boot. And by my fourth pair, I had it down to at least reasonable speed.
These guys didn't laugh at me once while I figured this out. Nor, I have to say, did they treat this as a break. As soon as I came on, they jumped on other jobs without missing a beat.
Two points for American workers there.
Once assembled (and checked), the fixtures are fitted onto the injection molding machine, which will attach the outsole to the uppers. Not pictured: me frantically trying to arrange the outsoles into the other side of the machine so my boots don't come out backwards or wonky, and so my overseer, with his hand on the emergency stop, doesn't have to shut down the factory on my behalf.
As I mentioned in my article about this visit, what struck me most was the lack of automation on the floor. Real workers doing real work on real American-made boots.
But, of course, this is the 21st century and some automation has to happen somewhere if you want to even pretend to compete. And here is KEEN's, a simple pair of robots prepping the uppers just before it's all melted together.
My First Boot!
And here's the final product on this side of the process: flash from the molding still fluttering at the edges, but otherwise, it looks like I made a real thing.
I didn't catch this guy's name, but he is a flash-cutting ninja.
At this stage in the operation, boots are put on spinning foot-like contraptions, and guys like this take a curved knife to cut away the excess PU. Most of us spent a full minute, carefully carving away, fully aware that any slip of the knife would ruin the pair. But this guy spun it around with easy perfection, finishing flawless boots in seconds.
End of the Line
And there we have it. Liners are installed (another nerve-wracking operation), boots are inspected, polished, boxed, and shipped off to feet all over the world.
Somehow, I managed not to blow anything up. The metrics were only slightly down from where they were when I started, and no one on the floor seemed too annoyed with my amateurish floundering. Pretty sure most of my boots even made it through QA, too.