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I had the pleasure of visiting the newly opened Milwaukee Tool manufacturing facility, in West Bend, Wisconsin.
It is my firm belief that, based on what I saw there, Milwaukee Tool is going to hugely disrupt the entire made-in-USA hand tool market.
Some might consider this to be hyperbole, but its not. This new Milwaukee Tool factory changes everything.
The new Milwaukee factory is already producing 3 types of pliers in several sizes, and also a line of screwdrivers.
Milwaukee launched their first screwdrivers 12 years ago. How vast is their hand tool business today? What do you think their USA-made hand tool business will look like in just a few years from now?
All of the pliers I handled felt like they were well-broken in, but without wear and slop. It was amazing.
Milwaukee did not reinvent pliers, but they did reinvent how quality pliers should be made.
The new screwdrivers have everything I could want in a quality screwdriver – precision non-slip tips, comfortable handles, and clear markings on the handle and end cap. I was impressed and if I’m being honest, surprised by this.
All of these tools are backed by a lifetime guarantee. And, please take note of the Made in USA badge. There’s no fine print, asterisk, or qualifications.
These tools are made in the USA from start to finish. They’re made in the USA using USA-made raw materials. US-made steel! No global materials here!
I missed the machine, but was later told even the screwdriver handle grips are made on-site.
I have talked to different tool brands over the years, about why certain tools are made overseas. Most of the time, it comes down to costs, and how much investment is required to establish new factories.
At the least, you need land, equipment, the right people, and know-how, which in my opinion is perhaps most important.
The know-how makes all the difference between a passable tool and a great one.
During the factory tour, led by Steve Lallensack, Milwaukee Tool VP of Operations for Hand Tools and Empire, we heard about the competitive benefits of Milwaukee’s production methods.
With every new station, we learned the ”what,” ”why,” and ”how.”
The buzzword “Industry 4.0,” which encompasses “smart automation” and similar technologies, was mentioned just once, and it seemed perfectly appropriate.
Let’s take a moment to talk about spell checkers. A few years ago, one might have typed something up in a word processor and then run a spellchecker. This was fine for shorter documents, but longer ones required much more time to fix.
With modern spell checkers and autocorrect, errors are often highlighted in realtime, giving you the opportunity to fix things along the way. Isn’t this more streamlined and better? That’s kind of what Milwaukee’s hand tool factory is like, where they can monitor and respond to everything in realtime.
There are automated measurements, checks, and controls for every process.
And, even with a high level of digitally-connected automation, the factory is home to more than 150 employees – operators, technicians, specialists, and engineers.
Yes, there are robots and automated processes, but human involvement was shown to be crucial.
I was talking to a Milwaukee Tool engineer, and referenced the ”aerospace-level tolerances” that we learned about during the tour. He told me that no, they’re actually exceeding aerospace tolerances.
Sure, the new pliers have perfect symmetry, perfectly formed grooves, comfortable handles, laser case-hardened grooves and cutting edges that don’t compromise the underling material, and the most perfect broken-in-feeling pivots I’ve ever experienced.
It is even more impressive how fast Milwaukee got here. They announced the new factory back in 2020, and now, a little more than two years after work was originally scheduled to begin, Milwaukee has new made-in-USA tools they say are superior to competing products while still being competitively priced.
After handling all of the new tools, I think they’re right.
Where did this production know-how come from so quickly? Granted, they announced from the start some of the types of tools that would be made at this facility, but it’s hard to optimize manufacturing processes without production cells in place.
With passion, commitment, and vision, they pulled this off. Milwaukee Tool’s capital surely helped accelerate the process, with the new company investing $55 million investment in the new facility.
And now, Milwaukee Tool joins a very small group of hand tool companies still capable of producing pliers and screwdrivers in the USA.
They’re also just getting started. The factory was designed and built with easy expandability and scaling in mind. Milwaukee Tool also owns the adjacent land and has right of refusal for an even larger plot in the surrounding area.
Now, I don’t know what other tool factories’ quality and materials labs look like, but I was surprised and happy to see the state-of-the-art equipment at this facility. From what I saw, I’d say that the same equipment and techniques that can be used for quality checks can also be used for manufacturing process developments and advancements.
Beyond the competitively-priced USA-made hand tools, I saw a glimpse into the future.
Milwaukee’s determination and drive is going to cause serious headaches for other hand tool makers, and I think competing brands are going to have to improve their game.
It is very clear to me that Milwaukee Tool raised the bar. The question is no longer can they do it?, but what will they do next?
This is great news for everyone.
After the successful launch and rapid growth of Milwaukee’s Packout tool storage system, many other tool brands poured new or renewed effort into their own tool storage products. If you ask me, the same is bound to happen here.
Milwaukee is pouring much energy into USA hand tool production. At the least, users gain access to a new generation of premium Milwaukee hand tools. But more than that, competing brands will have no choice but to meet the new challenge head-on.
I was given the distinct impression that Milwaukee is only getting started, and I cannot wait to see where the company goes from here.