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The Trouble With Cutting Thousands of Keys

We discussed bulk key-cutting a couple of times before (here and here, to be precise), but it continues to be an exciting topic. Every bulk order we get presents its own challenges.

To make key orders in bulk (bulk is anywhere from 500 keys, with our biggest ever order being 15 000 keys) is a logistical challenge that isn’t easy to manage. The good news is that we’ve become very good at making piles and piles of keys, and don’t shy away from the challenge.

If you need keys made in any large or large-ish quantity, just let us know here.

Problem 1: Which key blanks can I use?

An astonishing array of key types flourish in the UK, which is at once a blessing and a curse. The problem is that not every key blank is available in huge quantities, and having to special-order blanks from Italy or Spain (where they get made) will play havoc with the price and the lead time.

The question is, then: is there a key blank we can use that will work well, that won’t jeopardise the price?

We’ve a whole load of resources at our disposal to help us with this, thankfully, including a library of key blank catalogues.

Who’d’ve thought making keys in bulk would require books, eh?

Problem 2: How do I lay out the production line?

As you can imagine, making thousands of keys in one go requires an efficient production line.

If you’re only making one or two keys at a time, it hardly makes a difference whether you’re efficient or not. But imagine that, in an order of 1000 keys, you do something inefficient that adds a mere three seconds to the time it takes to cut a key. It doesn’t sound like much, but after making 1000 keys, you’ve wasted 50 minutes!

Fortunately, our boss is an expert at production line optimisation (genuinely, he even wrote a study on the subject way back when). When we set up our workshop, he had an efficient production line in mind.

You need to consider lots of things when setting up a bulk production line:

  • Are my hands and arms moving the minimum distance possible?
  • Does the setup allow me to double-book my time (e.g. can I safely add keyrings and cut at the same time)?
  • Where do I put the finished key? To my left or to my right?
  • Is there room for error?

On top of this, you need to make sure your ‘system’ is intelligible to the next shift. It needs to be obvious to the next key-cutter what the score is, otherwise you’ll cause havoc, which will result in time wasted correcting any errors.

Problem 3: Can I use two machines at the same time?

We have a computerised key-cutting machine, and a more traditional manual one. In theory, you can use both at the same time (push the buttons on the computer one and, while you wait for it to run, quickly make the other key). Doing this will increase your speed (though you’ll probably break into a sweat!).

But can you actually do it? It’s not always possible.

Safety first. It’s not safe in every case to use two machines at the same time.

It’s not always efficient. With some keys, it’s much faster just to use the computerised machine to all the work. Similarly, it’s sometimes faster to do all keys by hand.

Not all keys can be cut on both machines. It sounds odd and came as a big surprise, but not all keys can be made on both machines. We recently made a large order for an ABUS padlock where one machine consistently made incorrect keys, and no amount of re-calibration could change that.

Problem 4: Getting rid of the swarf

Swarf is the burrs that are left on the key after it has been cut. To remove the swarf, we’d normally brush the key with a wire brush. However, doing this a thousand times is an awful lot of work.

The solution to this problem is simple—and very noisy!

We put all cut keys into a big box and rattle the box to our heart’s content. The keys rub against each other and rub off the burrs quite effectively themselves.

Problem 5: How do you count a thousand keys?

One of the things you have upon leaving primary school is the theoretical knowledge to count to 1000 and, if you’re a particularly precocious little scamp, maybe more.

But have you ever actually counted all the way to 1000?

Not only would that be an exceedingly boring and pointless task, there’s a high chance you make a mistake or lose count along the way. Imagine getting to 678 and then your mind goes blank! Would be horrible.

We use a much more accurate method of counting keys: weighing them.

You just need to work out with reasonable accuracy the weight of one key, and then weigh the whole batch. Simple, really.

Looking for keys made in bulk?