Callye Keen


“At IMTS, I can see all the automation, machine tool and machine components providers at one time.”

Callye Keen sleeps, but given his missionary-like zeal for innovation, entrepreneurship, manufacturing and mentoring, we're not sure when.

Keen is Co-founder and President of Red Blue Collective (read story), Regional President of Startups Ignite (a community focused on helping start-up businesses grow) and a heavy social media user who advocates for helping people take hardware products from concept to market. Then there's his nine-to-five job as Design Manager at Kform, a precision manufacturer in Sterling, Va., just northwest of Washington, D.C.

Callye Keen

Keen's grandfather started Kform in 1980, and his father and aunt purchased the business from him in the early ‘90s. Originally a general machine shop, Keen's father added a turret press to expand into sheet metal services, then subsequently added welding, painting and silk screen to become more of a full-service product provider versus a parts provider. Now, Keen and his brother, who runs Kform's machine shop, are applying technology to further enhance Kform's offerings.

“After visiting IMTS, we got into five-axis machining in 2010. We got into CAM automation around the same time frame. We just upgraded to an Amada 4 kW fiber laser. Now we're looking at robots, dual-spindle mill turns and horizontal machining centers. We like attending IMTS because it's the place to see all those manufacturing technologies at once.”

With their location in the heart of America's defense industry, Kform focused on “C4ISR” enclosures, which house electronics for Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance mission systems. The company also makes RF shielded server racks, shielded enclosure accessories and can develop a multitude of rugged electronic products, from wearable manpack systems to shipboard rugged power to underwater sensor enclosures.

The company's secret to success? “Focus on what you're good at. Know who your customers are and do what other people don't want to do,” says Keen. “I see niche differentiation as a means for companies to obtain and retain customers.”

This Is the Future

One of Keen's earliest IMTS experiences occurred in 2002. Having quit the computer science program at Virginia Tech to work at Kform, Keen wrote a software package to manage job shops. He purchased booth space in the Controls & CAD-CAM Pavilion, which was fortuitously located kitty corner to the SOLIDWORKS exhibit.

“I grew up using 2D CAD systems,” explains Keen. “When I saw SOLIDWORKS, I thought, ‘This is the future.' After being there all week and talking with representatives, we bought their software and became an early adopter of 3D CAD.”

Keen explains using SOLIDWORKS enables Kform to design more advanced shapes. However, if designing non-orthogonal parts is easier, refixturing some parts up to 22 times isn't.

“At IMTS 2010, we went to the Haas booth and saw the VF-5TR and said, ‘Yep, we need that' and got into five-axis machining so we could execute better designs. Fixturing parts now takes 30 to 60 minutes. We liked the Haas five-axis so much we bought another one six months later.”

Of course, using archaic tools like calipers to check quality on free-form parts doesn't exactly enhance productivity either, which is why Keen visited the Quality Assurance Pavilion in 2014 and ended up purchasing a FARO arm to inspect 5-axis parts. At the most recent IMTS, Keen focused on automation, as Kform recently won several large contracts that necessitate a rapid capacity expansion.

“If I can use something like a MIDACO pallet changer on a Haas VF-2, that would be some low-hanging fruit,” says Keen. However, what Keen really wants to do is run lights out, and that probably means combining an automated system with a horizontal machining center.

“At IMTS, I can see all the automation, machine tool and machine components providers at one time,” says Keen. “Right now, we're growing into a production problem. How do we keep our two- and three-week lead times? How do we make hundreds instead of dozens of parts? Going to IMTS lets me connect with people who have already solved these problems. I think manufacturing entrepreneurs are special because we have such hands-on businesses. You can't just dream about solving problems, and you won't thrive if you're just a doer.”

While he buys equipment as a result of visiting the show, Keen emphasizes that IMTS is not a transactional event.

“IMTS is experiential,” he states. “It's the place where I talk with influencers and market leaders. Making connections gives me a stronger network and broader team to execute. That's how highly successful companies operate.”

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