Keith Manufacturing Co. Simplifies Materials Handling for Wood Products

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A no-waste commitment to wood fiber begins with easy transport and storage of bulk product.


MADRAS, Oregon — Engineered-solutions power the activities of Keith Manufacturing Company. So much so, the firm has 13 engineers on staff to support the variety of projects the company designs, builds and installs.

Keith Walking Floor® systems meet the needs of a wide range of industries including agriculture, waste, and aggregates. In the wood products industry, Keith Walking Floor systems move, store and meter pulp chips, mulch, sawdust, and biofuel fiber.

“The wood products industry has always challenged us with storing very large amounts of material,” said Mike Robinson, sales director at Keith Mfg. Bio-generation plants, for example, need 500 to 1,000 tons of fiber onsite to ensure uninterrupted production of energy.

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Bulk handling equipment installed in trailers and bins are the core components of the Walking Floor systems from Keith Mfg. The systems can be integrated with belt conveyors, augers, spike rolls and compactors, to meet the precise requirements of a customer.

When a customer has a “challenging” situation, Keith Mfg. is committed to work to help the customer “find a solution,” explained Mike. “We’re not just here to sell a product. We want to go out and achieve a goal and solve a problem.”

A customized system is just one part of the approach to quality service. “We make all our own components,” said Mike. “We have very good quality control.”

The quality control, part of the philosophy of good business at Keith Mfg., also advances the company’s commitment to lean manufacturing processes. In manufacturing, lean principles focus on elimination of waste and adding value for the end user of a product. The head of the engineering department at the company is also responsible for lean processes, which have been in place for about 10 years.

“Lean has helped tremendously in the way we manufacture,” said Mike. “[Our] shop is almost spotless. It’s a very organized, clean facility.”

Different lines in the manufacturing plant are dedicated to different processes, explained Mike. “It works very well for us.”

With its commitment to lean processes, Keith Mfg. only introduces a new product when it has the capability to fully support it. All products are supported by a service department. In addition to two fully-equipped service trucks that stand ready – one each on the U.S. East Coast and the U.S. West Coast, technicians fly to customer sites around the world.

Keith Foster (1922-2006), the founder of Keith Mfg., was inducted into the Environmental Industry Association Hall of Fame in 2001. He was recognized for his contributions to the automation of waste handling, including his work that contributed to developing reliable moving floor systems.

Mike reflects that when Keith started the company, he used his expertise in engineering to serve the agricultural industry. “To help farmers with a better way to move their products” was Keith’s initial objective, explained Mike. “As the years went by, it took a while for the public to understand [the walking floor concept].”

Yet once the understanding took hold, the company that Keith headed quickly grew to serve handlers of bulk materials from all industries. “It expanded from agriculture to waste to myriad industries,” said Mike. And it expanded rapidly.

Keith’s ties to wood products began informally when he was a child. In interviews he recounted how his father insisted he learn to saw a board square and straight and how his grandfather would not abide a bent nail.

The longest root of Keith Mfg. dates to the early 1950s when the company began with the name Foster Manufacturing Company, tapping the surname of its founder. The current name dates to the early 1960s.

Keith Mfg. has always been headquartered in Madras, Ore. Madras is a town with a population of 6,533 in Jefferson County. It lies approximately 120 miles southeast of Portland in the central part of the Beaver State.

Mike joined Keith Mfg. 22 years ago. Prior to doing so, Mike sold Walking Floor® systems through a dealership he owned. His tenure at the company began in the manufacturing plant. He then worked as a service technician before getting into sales. He has been sales director for 12 years.

Mike is a native of Oregon. He spent some years in Houston, Texas running a company in a different industry before returning to the Pacific Northwest 30 years ago.

“I learned the whole process from working through the company,” said Mike. That knowledge is invaluable when he works to assist customers with their specific goals.

The sales niche is one Mike relishes. “I very much enjoy working with people,” he said. “I’ve travelled around the world. When Keith Foster was alive – in 1999, he tasked me with travelling to Japan to introduce Walking Floor® products.”

Although Mike had some trepidation because he does not speak Japanese, he recalls the experience as a particularly rewarding one. His strong belief in the product he was introducing eased the language barrier. Many of the Walking Floor systems now in place in Japan are serving the wood products industry.

The reciprocating slats foundational to the Walking Floor systems from Keith Mfg. are made to match type of product being moved. Not only are slats available in different widths and thicknesses, but they also can be modified in length to accommodate different types of trailers. High-wear steel and aluminum slats are both available.

Strength of the Walking Floor® systems allows for forklifts to be driven onto most of them. At the other end of the spectrum, for customers with a light product looking for a lightweight walking floor, Keith Mfg. offers slats made from UHMW (ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene), a type of plastic.

Options in slat size and material just get things started. As Mike has explained, it’s about solutions.

Consider the bark blower truck – a place where a walking floor might add efficiency. Yes, it’s doable. Walking Floor systems from Keith Mfg. are designed to be fitted to existing trailers and containers.

For the wood industry, reliability is the starting point for efficiency. Being able to move sawdust, mulch, chips and biofuel efficiently adds economic and environmentally-forward-looking value to every bit of wood fiber.

Mike and his sales team colleagues start by talking with customers to get answers to two basic questions: “How much storage? How many products?”

While a logger who grinds and quickly moves mulch to a wholesaler may not need much storage, a sawmill that also manufactures pellets may have significant storage needs for fiber that will be used to make the pellets. Similarly, customers have different requirements in moving bulk material around their facilities.

Some customers prefer to use a front-end loader to fill bins, for instance. Others welcome assistance with a conveyor and chute system.

Simplifying storage, as well as movement, of bulk products continues to take fascinating turns as Keith Mfg. works with customers on solutions. Finger joint bins count as one such turn, which took place approximately 20 years ago.

“All wood remanufacturers need a place for storage of six-inch to 12-inch long pieces until they can be put together,” said Mike. Plants deploy as many as eight to 20 Walking Floor bins for finger joints. In doing so, they keep their facility organized and can draw from the bins when they are ready to glue together the components for 2×4 and 2×6 sizes.

In the secondary manufacturing segment of the wood products industry, Keith Mfg. provides systems for storing finger joints. It also offers systems for moving palletized loads.

The Freight Runner™ system, a new product line from Keith Mfg., will simplify cargo handling for members of the wood products industry shipping loads of new pallets and unitized lumber. The system can be installed in existing trailers or on a dock in one day. With a dock and trailer installation of the system, which is based on a chain-pull mechanism, product such as pallets or unitized lumber can be moved between dock and trailer without a forklift.

Because the chain-based conveying system, which is bolted to the trailer floor and/or loading dock, moves the product from the entrance of a trailer to the interior, there is no need for a person or a forklift to enter the trailer. The system is entirely automated and a full trailer can be loaded or unloaded in as few as two minutes. Hydraulic (off truck’s power takeoff), battery operated (stand-alone unit) or AC-powered (dock plug-in) drive options are available.

Accomplishing loading and unloading without a forklift operator or an individual operating a pallet jack inside a trailer reduces labor costs. The system also frees employees for other activities.

As members of the wood products industry endeavor to use every wood fiber, they are adding to their operations. It’s not unusual for a logger or a saw mill operator to produce some mulch. The mills also may produce chips and sawdust. The easier it is to consolidate, store and move such bulk products, the more attractive selling such products becomes. Questions about best approach in bulk handling are just the sort the team at Keith Mfg. Co. welcomes.

“We’re very customer oriented,” said Mike. “Give us a chance [to help find a solution].”