Reporting by Kat Bauman
In its first iteration, the Leatherman multi-tool was a Double-Oh-Seven-worthy gadget idea, born out of a traveler's frustration and initially snubbed by major tool companies. These days, Leatherman is a synonym for any dozen-in-one dream tool you can fit in a pocket. The idea came to Tim Leatherman back in the 1970s, when the recent mechanical engineering grad and his wife Chau decided touring Europe in a questionable Fiat would be a good use of a year. Leatherman found himself regularly eyeballing the guts of the car, wishing for one tool he didn't have in his Swiss Army Knife: pliers.
Back in Oregon, he spent the next several years developing a design for the tool he had craved, patiently supported by Chau. After partnering with a friend with a machine shop, he pitched the first Leatherman multi-tool to knife and tool companies to resounding disinterest... until Cabela's unexpectedly ordered 200 for their mail-order catalog. They featured it on their back cover and ordered 500 more before the first order was filled. With that, the Leatherman snowball was off and rolling.
30 years later, the Leatherman Tool Company is still growing. Every Leatherman tool is made in Portland, OR, where the company employs 525 people full time, and runs 24-hour production at three locations. The smallest space is the site of the original machine shop, and the largest is the 90,000 sq. ft. factory, which I recently got to tour because I am an important regional figure.
After chatting with ID honcho Blair Barnes, I left the aggressively air-conditioned design and business offices and entered the stream of activity on the factory floor. Like most factories, this one is laid out for efficiency. Production flows from one side of the building to the other, starting with the lifeblood of the factory: a custom die shop. The die shop (curtained off to outsiders) houses what I imagine to be wizardly figures, conceiving, crafting and repairing the dies used in each machine. Having the designers and machinists in close proximity with production makes it quicker to design new dies and fix broken ones than sending things out of house.
The first stage is stamping, the meatiest part of the process. Most of the steel arrives as narrow sheet coiled on large spools, big enough to take your head off if one were to burst open. Sheet steel is fed from the spools through fine blanking machines, which cut out tool blanks. They rapidly hole-punch the sheet and spit out outlines of components like knife blades and screwdriver bits. My guides proudly noted that, in keeping with Mr. Leatherman's values, all of the steel used is American made. Since virtually all Leatherman tools have an all-steel construction, that's saying something. (Any other materials used—such as the glass-injected plastic handles of their new EMT multi-shears—are chosen for their tactile and functional similarity to steel.)
My guides also let me stick my fingers in a pile of the resulting screwdriver shapes, stored in open stacking bins. Parts are produced on-demand and every batch is subjected to a quality check at each stage, so small plastic boxes are used for transportation and quick quality assurance. I clinked proto-tool pieces and pondered a trip to the Container Store.
Near the fine blanking machines is a massive progressive punch, a thundering machine the size of a spacious two-story bungalow. Here, tool handles were being created in an impressive multi-step process. A blank spool is fed in and treated to fifteen different processes in a single cycle. It punches, moves over, drills holes, moves over, folds, moves over, knurls... producing multiply formed tool handles in thirty seconds. Operating most of the day, the unavoidable sound of the punch is known to cause dreams of lumbering giants. Smaller progressive punches do similar work nearby with less aural drama.
Around the corner, we explored an alternative to punching: lasers! The danger-stripe floor tape was out in force, but sadly the big laser was turned off and of little danger to anyone during my visit. The laser is largely employed for premium steels used in tougher or lightweight parts. Steel of that hardness can damage or prematurely fatigue a punch's dies, so the laser is used to maximize materials, reduce heat-affected zones and prevent tool wear.
The following Mass Finish section is another deafening area, filled with a series of gigantic vibratory tumblers. Imagine cereal bowls so big your family could sit in them, filled with bite-sized pieces of ceramic and buckshot—breakfast of champs. Newly cut or pressed components are tumbled with different sizes of ceramic media and a soapy polishing compound for several hours. This form of slow harassment cleans, toughens and polishes them. To retrieve small parts from the ceramic gumbo a rotating belt—magnetized on one side—is lowered into the bowl, drawing the finished pieces out of the mix and back into plastic bins. From here, some pieces go out for additional heat treating.
When the time is right, the components are loaded up for precision treatment in the CNC Machining Center. Here the tool blanks find their true form. Screwdrivers get their facets, knives get edges, rivet holes emerge. To my layman's eyes, it looked like the work of an impossibly fast sculptor flawlessly shaping gray clay. The introduction of CNC machining initially raised fears about job cuts, but the opposite has happened: more technicians were hired to run the machines and others to maintain them. Meanwhile, the facility now produces an average of 16,000 tools a day.
Nearing the end of their birth-cycle, the components receive finishing treatments for precise fit and a pleasing hand-feel. Multi-axis robotic arms grind for accuracy and perfectly-calibrated fit within the tool. Bead blasters fire away, giving parts their signature subtle texture. The all-important pliers are a good example of the obsessive attention to detail. Once it has been machined, a plier jaw gets fed to a spark-shooting robot where it is ground perfectly flat and bevelled; upon removal, it is inspected, riveted to its mate, re-ground, re-bevelled, and inspected again. The jaws come out perfectly matched and square, and when you look at them together the fit is nearly imperceptible—a hairline around the rivet. "You can just drop it right into a tool!" my guide reports. I'm sure it's that easy.
And then the magic time comes. The little buckets arrive at u-shaped tables where assemblers press, place and tweezer the pieces together. Assembly workers are trained on each assembly function and work in semi-circles to keep communication high, reduce repetitive stress, and cut off problems early. After being touched, tested and scrutinized by over a dozen circumspect human beings, the pliers flex fluidly, screwdriver bits snuggle with sawblades, and bottle openers find their forever homes. Each precisely made piece makes its way into a tool that's simple enough to use daily and sturdy enough to last for years without complaint.
Think about that next time you're staring at a Fiat.