Getting Our Hands Dirty: NED Storms the KEEN Factory

Last month, KEEN put me to work in its Portland factory to assemble, finish, and ship real boots for real workers, putting me at the center of a movement that's proving hands-on manufacturing still viable and profitable in the USA.

Over the course of my career here, I have toured dozens of plants all over the country. I have seen high-tech facilities, and some frighteningly low tech. I have marveled at the sparklingly clean digital manufacturing wonders, I have been coated in oil fogs from a hundred decrepit spraying systems.

During these visits, however interesting they are, there's always this kind of gap. This disconnect between me, taking notes as GMs and executives tell me about all the stuff they're doing, and the people on the floor actually doing the stuff.

From this perspective they seem almost mechanical—these highly-trained, experienced workers doing jobs I can't imagine with unimaginable skill just working away in the background doing their thing.

It's always an uncomfortable arrangement. They smile awkwardly at me staring over their shoulders while I try to guess what it is they're doing and how they're so good at it. And that's weird because these are the people I'm writing for; this is the story I'm trying to find. But I'm removed from them because they are working, and I am working. The two of us never really seemed to meet.

That gap was finally closed for me last month. During my plant visit to the KEEN PM factory, the company did something weird.

Rather than just walking me through the edges as usual, they actually put me on the line. They had me cram uppers onto their fixtures, set the outsoles into the molds, even cut flash from the assembled boots—every major operation in the factory except for QA, of course. Someone had to check my work.

I walked away from the event absolutely shaken. I mean, I worked plenty of assembly jobs in my teens and through college. But I never really considered anything but the task ahead of me. Now, maybe because of my job and the understanding of the process it's given me, the whole thing seemed heavy.

Throughout the process, I was keenly aware that what I was doing was going to end up on somebody's foot somewhere. That every uneven misstep I made figuring this out would directly impact the final quality and ultimately the reputation of this company.

Understand, of course, I was closely watched and corrected by the real workers there, so there was no real chance that a mistake would actually make it through. But the potential felt real.

I'm not sure what KEEN's intention was in this activity, whether it was meant to be a learning experience or just a fun way to mix up their annual event. But I walked away with a profound new understanding of the industry.

This is a company that's trying to make U.S. production work, trying to prove that real manufacturing and real hands-on assembly operations like this are still viable and profitable in this country. By putting the work in my hands, in the hands of a know-nothing writer who is always a few steps removed, it made that point loud and clear.

Manufacturing isn't a concept, it isn't a movement, it isn't a political rally cry. It's a thing that people do. It's a job, and a vital one.

And something in that honestly felt good. I made four pairs of boots while at the factory. I had my hands in this new innovation, this new platform that's trying to change the way shoemaking works. I was part of the story, however briefly and clumsily. And I walked away feeling better about that than anything I've done in quite a while.

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