Corporate History

Kenneth L. Heins knew he “could make quality parts if given the chance.” As a journeyman tool and die maker, Heins was armed with the determination to fund and found KLH Industries, Inc. on July 1, 1987. Over the past thirty years, the KLH family has executed a commitment to excellence and improvement that turned a one-room shop into a one-stop shop.

Origins of One

Though KLH was created in July 1987, there was no EDM equipment until September of that year. Even then, one was a key number for the original location in Slinger, WI: one room, one computer, one machine, one full-time employee (Ken), and one part-time employee. Despite being powered entirely by word of mouth, growth was nearly effortless. In less than one year, KLH outgrew its brick-and-mortar skin.

Strip Mall Service

The business relocated in 1988 into one section of a Hubertus strip mall, a move that doubled the square footage of the previous Slinger location. At that time, the strip mall was home to an odd array of businesses: dry cleaning, movie rental, pizza delivery, flower arrangements, and now…electrical discharge machining.

While some of these businesses fell on hard-times, KLH expanded into the adjacent location, doubling the square footage for the second time in company history. The expansion created the space necessary to house more wire EDM machines, but also created a new obstacle.

Early wire EDM machines gave off 42,000 BTU of heat, equivalent to a single 3.5-ton air conditioner. With seven wire machines giving off a combined 294,000 BTU of heat, KLH needed a controllable environment to continue to produce precision tolerances.

Full Service Machining Begins

In 1993, a facility was raised in Germantown that could accommodate the unique environment required by the wire EDM machines.

Ken’s behind-the-scenes business partner, his wife Connie, received a much-deserved office of her own. From day one, Connie had performed the administration and bookkeeping from home while raising three boys. With the kids now old enough for school, the family behind the “family business” were at last visible.

To facilitate success, the company continued to expand and diversify into new avenues of manufacturing. Added in 1996, waterjet cutting introduced hundreds of new materials. Waterjets pressurize water up to 1,000 times that of a garden house, slicing through materials as thick as 22 inches.

The advent of the waterjet, however, created new space concerns. KLH had once again outgrown its environment, and in 1997 expanded upon the Germantown location. To expand the full service that was demanded by customers, KLH added a CNC machining department in 1999.

The three departments – EDM, CNC, and Waterjet – worked in sync to provide precision machining in accordance with ISO 9001 quality management standards. The concept of an all-encompassing solution was engaging, and in 2003 the company seized an opportunity to purchase assets of a closed machining company and hire most of its intellectual capital.

Stable Growth

The increased capacity was quickly utilized, as during this period KLH experienced average growth rates near 16%. In 2006, KLH made huge commitment to ensuring the quality of its services. KLH brought in one of the most accurate CMM inspection machines available, upgrading an average inspection room into a temperature-controlled quality lab.

By customer demand, KLH expanded machining capabilities to include CNC turning. Yet the company was not solely committed to working more. To satisfy the enlarged market, KLH made serious commitments to working smarter. In 2009, KLH invested over 2,300 hours of lean training to reduce waste company-wide.

The commitment to improvement was recognized nationally by Modern Machine Shop magazine, as well as by local peers. KLH was nominated for Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year for the first time in 2009, then again in 2010 and 2011.

By receiving AS9100 certification in 2010, KLH began producing precision parts for the world’s leading aircraft and aerospace manufacturers. Less than a year later, KLH-machined hardware related components for the International Space Station.

Second Facility

For the fifth time in its history, KLH doubled its manufacturing square footage in 2011. For only the first time, however, KLH began operating out of two buildings simultaneously.

The purchase of a second facility created breathing room for all KLH’s departments. None benefited as much as the CNC machining department, who’s usable manufacturing area increased over 180%. The entire CNC department relocated to the new facility, to better house a growing department.

The expectation of making quality parts continued in the new facility by installing a second temperature-controlled quality lab and outfitting it with a matching CMM machine. No matter which machining service and no matter which location, KLH would always have the capability to inspect what customers expect.

Multi-Axis Machining

The term “5-axis” refers to the number of directions, or axes, a machine can move in. Most machine tools move in at least three linear axes: up/down, left/right, front/back. A 5-axis machine adds two rotary axes that move the work piece without physically removing it, allowing the machine can reach new cutting angles without human intervention.

Five-axis is commonly associated with CNC milling machines, but KLH’s exploration into the 5-axis world was first with waterjet cutting in 2013. An articulating head can angle the cutting stream up to 120 degrees of total articulation. Parts produced were of better quality in fewer setups.

The 5-axis mindset was brought to CNC milling in 2014, and once again, the advantages of doing more with less were obvious. Within a year, 5-axis machining was the most sought-after service in the shop by customers and staff alike.

An analysis of the 5-axis backlog revealed a trend in the part geometry: roundness. Many of these parts also needed a CNC turning operation. KLH addressed both needs in 2017 by investing in an emerging mill/turn technology capable of true simultaneous multi-axis movements. The addition of a highly capable mill/turn emphasized KLH’s position of staying on the forefront of new machining technologies.

Age of Automation

Of course, innovation in machining is not limited solely to the machine tool itself. All machine tools are limited by the need for human interaction. Proactive operators will milk every extra minute of machine utilization by starting a machining cycle before they walk out the door. If the cycle time is short, there’s little productivity to be gained during nights and weekends.

Even a machining process with a naturally longer cycle time, like wire EDM, benefits from unattended run time. A wire EDM machine can theoretically operate unattended for up to 60 hours in rare circumstances, but most parts do not require such long cycle times. Just as with other forms of machining, the question is not if an operator will be needed, but when an operator will be needed.

KLH’s answer to this key question was a robotic cell on two high-end wire EDM machines in 2016. By automating the loading and unloading of work pieces to the machine, KLH’s wire EDMs could offer true 24/7 availability to parts with shorter cycle times. After a year of automation experience, Ken Heins would declare, “We’ll never invest in another piece of equipment that isn’t automation capable.”

He kept that promise in 2018 by adding a 5-axis CNC mill with a six-station pallet changer, and again in 2019 by adding yet another wire EDM cell. While some shops are resisting the impact of automation on the industry, KLH was thinking about separate, redundant automation for even more continuous runtime.

Entrepreneurial Operating System

The evolution of KLH has always been fueled by openness to new ideas, often in the form of new machining technologies. In the summer of 2019, KLH looked inward.

The Entrepreneurial Operating System, or EOS as it is commonly known, is a set of concepts and tools that helps business owners articulate their vision and create the traction to achieve it. The six components of EOS – Vision, People, Data, Issues, Process, and Traction – laid the foundation for a scalable business model.

Middling core values were replaced by a timeless set of guiding principles. A ten-year target was set and shared with all. Accountability was established through defining roles and measurables. Recurring weekly meetings were streamlined and scored.

Another noteworthy change was the creation of a leadership team to represent the major functions of the business. One addition to the leadership team was Ken’s youngest son, Kevin, who has been involved with KLH since he was a teenager.

A company-wide roll out of the EOS principals was held in fall of 2019, and every day is a continuous pursuit towards EOS mastery.

History of Excellence

KLH has doubled in square footage five times, serviced over 1,100 different customers, and shipped over 15 million parts. However, one remains a key number for KLH, as a one-stop shop for precision machining solutions.

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