Chance meetings are an important part of our personal and professional lives. The people we meet enjoying leisure activities often provide a foundation for our professional futures. Such is the case with Knox Wire Harness and its owners Scott Zech, Rob Brown, and Will Nichols. In a recent interview, Scott explained their serendipitous beginnings and outlined KWH’s roadmap to the future.
KWH was founded by three engineers focusing on quality, automation, and service, but with an agile mindset. “We are very adaptable to changes and set out to create a modular system to satisfy needs we saw in the harness marketplace,” Scott began.
It started through, of all things, the sport of hurling. Hurling is an ancient Gaelic field game that involves the combined skills of lacrosse, baseball and hockey. It’s often called the fastest sport on grass and is actually gaining popularity in the U.S. If your unfamiliar with the sport, a quick YouTube search will answer most of your questions.
Rob Brown and Will Nichols have a company in Charleston SC called Willin Solutions where they specialize in military cables. Will introduced Rob to hurling and Willin Solutions sponsored the Charleston team. Rob moved to Knoxville for a change of scenery and joined a hurling team there where he befriended teammate Scott. Yet another teammate worked for an OEM and had a dire need for harnesses. Scott had several years of harness design under his belt working as an engineer for a marine OEM. Rob, Will and Scott formed KWH to meet the needs of that first commercial customer in 2019. “We have been growing very quickly in the marine space, mostly through my contacts in the industry,” Scott detailed. Will has remained in Charleston to oversee the existing military customers but is in constant contact with Rob and Scott in support of the commercial operation in Knoxville.
Currently, about 70% of KWH’s business is in the marine sector and the ability to stock many wire types and connectors common to that industry helps keep them competitive. “The marine industry is huge in Knoxville and that’s where we’re focusing and growing right now,” Scott explained, “But I wouldn’t limit our engineering and production capabilities to just the marine side because what we offer is expandable to other markets.”
Through their website and some word-of-mouth, they have also been able to gain customers in other industries. “We are doing some harnesses for a company that does custom rebuilds and recreations of classic Ford Broncos and another that builds concrete polishing units,” he noted
As you might expect, it hasn’t all been easy getting the company rolling these past three years, but KWH has taken a smart approach to growth. “I knew it was going to be a lot of work and there were many times I had to work until midnight and beyond to get harnesses out,” Scott lamented. “But as we grew, it was important for us to grow the right way. We made sure we had the correct procedures and the right equipment in place, so we weren’t just throwing people and money at it.”
Scott admitted the most difficult part has been in quoting new business. For him, the art has been balancing KWH’s value against what the customer wants to pay. “That’s always been, and still is, the hardest part. But it gets easier once you start doing similar harnesses across the industry.”
The conversation turned to the amount of KWH’s engineering input required for their average customer. Scott indicated its a mix of everything from build-to-print to full design. “A few of our customers have harnesses designed and just send us the drawing, but for most, it’s a mix. Our biggest customer moved away from their old supplier who was designing the harnesses for them and tried to take it in-house. They made rough drawings and sent them to me and because I understand the boat system, I was able to tell them, ‘hey, this isn’t going to work,’ and make the needed changes,” he detailed.
Scott mentioned that in the marine industry, especially for luxury tow (ski) and wake boarding boats, there is tremendous growth, but engineering is understaffed. “Our biggest customer is making 2,000 boats per year, but they have an engineering team of four people — and they really don’t have an electrical engineer on staff. It always seems like people never think about the harness until it’s too late,” he exclaimed.
As far as quality standards, Scott is convinced it’s an area that sets KWH apart. Scott, Rob and Will established an in-house quality procedure with two quality team members responsible for releasing product. “I can’t even step over and say, ‘get this stuff out the door,’ they have to approve it all,” he instructed. They do 100% electrical check of all harnesses. “After it gets the green check, only the QA person is allowed to unplug all the connectors, verify the terminals are locked, and every harness is then visually checked.”
KWH believes strongly in tooling automation. “Right now, we do zero hand terminations, even for prototyping,” Scott explained. “I like to quote my business partner Rob, ‘the harness is only as good as its crimp.’ Every single terminal we crimp comes off an automated machine.” The team performs a pull force test at the beginning and end of each run and whenever a reel of terminals is changed. Multiple visual and electronic tests are made along the way to ensure the harnesses integrity. “There is a huge focus on quality, and I think that really does set us apart because we have very limited customer issues, if any at all, with our harnesses.”
Scott asserts that another thing that sets them apart is the agile mindset at KWH. They do a lot with the employees they have and the space they utilize. Growth in terms of personnel and equipment has been careful and methodical. This agility allows them to do rapid prototypes and quick turns on revision changes.
They have 25 employees and most of their growth was in their original 5,000 sq. ft. facility. That’s where the culture of agility was developed as Scott remembered, “we were packed in there like sardines.” They recently occupied an additional 4,000 sq. ft. building about a 1/2 mile away. The original building is where they do wire prep, which is anything from cutting, splicing and pre-populating. They also do battery cables there. The second facility is where most of their harness boards are for larger assemblies.
While on the subject of boards and rapid prototyping, Scott was proud to mention the unique prototyping concept he devised. Using off-the-shelf items, mostly from Home Depot, he devised a simple and elegant method of quickly assembling harness boards. Depending on the complexity of the design, he can usually set up a new board within an hour. “We used to spend hours drilling holes in plywood for the fixtures. Now, I can make a cut sheet and give it to the machine operators in wire prep and by the time they have the wires cut, I can have the board completed. It’s been really helpful, especially when the customers are making changes as frequently as ours do. And it saves a lot of space by not having multiple boards.”
Scott, Rob and Will are very conscious of their part in the community. They sponsor a local hurling team and participate in many fundraisers in and around Knoxville. But the community they feel most responsible for is their small and powerful team at KWH. “We are big in helping and giving back to our employees. Being a small manufacturing company, we don’t have all the benefits of a large company. But one thing I found through the years is if your employees are happy, they’re going to build a better product for you,” Scott asserted. KWH offers very flexible scheduling and holds a team lunch every Monday. “We want to make sure they’re happy and they enjoy coming to work here, so it’s a huge focus for us. If they need something, we are there to support them, and not just on work related things.”
The company has set up a bonus program tied to weekly production goals. “If we meet our goal, then everybody gets a bonus. Since starting production bonuses, we’ve met them all but two times,” Scott reported.
At the end of last year, they started innovation awards for employees. “Some of our best ideas come from our employees,” he revealed. “They’re building it, so we definitely try to listen to them and implement their ideas. Some of our best ideas came from this program.”
Many thanks to Scott for taking time to speak with us, and special thanks to KWH Wire Prep Team Lead and amateur photographer Mary Brady for the wonderful images. If you’d like to learn more about Knox Wire Harness, you can jump on their website at knoxwireharnesses.com or contact Scott at [email protected].