It may come as a surprise for the local population to learn that a company based in Madras is a real mover and shaker in the sphere of conveying and loading technology, being widely recognized as a world leader in the industry.
Keith Manufacturing Company, which operates out of some 300,000 square feet of manufacturing space on 62 sprawling acres in Madras Industrial Park, employs a 150-strong workforce and holds over 250 patents, with sales and warehouse bases from Spain to Australia and a global network of dealers.
The company’s core product is its “Walking Floors” hydraulically-driven moving floor conveyor system, with mobile and stationary units used throughout the world in the refuse and recycling, agriculture, ice, cotton, wood products and paper industries.
In the trailer-based iteration, the system is built with metal slats that run the length of a trailer floor. Actuated by a hydraulic drive, the slats move in groups, then together, as the sequence “walks” material out. Systems can be bi-directional for both loading and unloading product.
The innovation changed the face of the solid waste industry in the 80’s and proved popular as a horizontal unloading alternative to elevating trailers on the tipping platform, where stability can also be an issue on uneven ground.
The company was founded by the late Keith Foster and his legacy of dedication to innovation, invention and initiative in creating a multi-million dollar enterprise has been carried on by his son, company president Mark Foster, who has been part of the venture since he was “old enough to sweep floors” and continues to explore new market opportunities.
A child of the Depression era, Keith Foster harbored a sound work ethic and an innovative streak from an early age. Embodying an independent-thinking spirit as an entrepreneur, he focused on better, as much as new, ways to build on existing technology, learning the basics of mechanics and engineering by operating and repairing farm machinery alongside his father on the family farm in Oklahoma.
After work with a McDonnell Douglass aircraft plant in Tulsa during World War II, he went on to study engineering at the University of Tulsa.
In the late 1940s Foster moved to Central Oregon, where his aptitude for designing agricultural equipment set in motion a long career in manufacturing.
As the co-owner of an Allis-Chalmers farm equipment dealership in Redmond, Oregon, Foster began selling combines with a modification that he designed, which allowed for improved harvesting of clover seed.
The budding entrepreneur left the dealership in 1950 and opened Foster Manufacturing in Madras – the heart of clover seed harvesting at the time.
By the 1970s, he had moved his small manufacturing operation to Madras’ industrial area and began work on a new material handling system. While other versions of moving floor technology existed, it was Foster who created a hydraulic drive unit that was powerful enough to unload a semi-trailer.
In 1973, Keith Mfg. Co. introduced the first commercially viable moving floor unloading system under the Walking Floor brand name. Sliding floor slats, powered by the hydraulic drive unit, provided the unloading force for the technology.
Interest in the self-unloading system gained momentum in 1980, when a Walking Floor unloader was installed in a semi-trailer hauling municipal solid waste. The system quickly became a staple in the waste and recycling industries, with the unloaders being used worldwide.
In 2001, Foster’s contribution to the waste industry was recognized when he was inducted into the Environmental Industry Association Hall of Fame. The organization praised Foster for revolutionizing the waste industry by automating the unloading process. In addition to improving the industry’s efficiency, use of Walking Floor systems helped increase safety at landfills.
That same year, the Oregon Entrepreneurs Forum nominated the firm as Manufacturing Company of the Year, while in 2002 Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce named Keith manufacturing the 2002 Business of the Year.
Mark Foster said his father’s strategy was simply to “build a better mousetrap.” The company not only built it, but engineered it and created a worldwide market for the Walking Floor unloading system.
Under Mark Foster’s leadership the company continues to push into new realms and makes several new patent applications a year.
Newer innovations include dock to trailer “Pallet Walker” automation and a “V-floor” unloader line – a moving floor system for handling a variety of materials, such as solid waste, scrap, sand and gravel. Constructed of formed steel and aluminum, the system features V-shaped floor slats with ridges designed to absorb increased load impact and abrasions, and has been well received in areas such as aggregate and asphalt handling.
Mark Foster said: “We are a highly automated and fully vertically integrated company. We have in-house marketing and produce as much of our final product as possible. If we can make it, we will.
“We are exploring new markets all the time and strive to do what we do the best we can.
“We are also always innovating regarding carrying out the most efficient ‘lean manufacturing’ strategies to eliminate waste in the production process and improve overall customer value.”
Foster added that both his daughters and their husbands work with the company, which stays ahead of the competition partly due to the scope of its proprietary technologies and marketing programs.
Keith Manufacturing attends more than 80 trade shows and conferences per year, including the UK tipping industry flagship Tip-Ex event where it exhibited nine trailers in the 2010 event held last month.
The company also prides itself on the level of customer service, product reliability and technological support it provides.