Electronic Design
Joseph F. Keithley: Quality. Service. Innovation. Integrity. QSII.

Joseph F. Keithley: Quality. Service. Innovation. Integrity. QSII.

Keithley (2005)

Early in the history of Keithley Instruments Inc., company founder Joseph F. Keithley passed cards out to employees and customers. These cards read "At Keithley Instruments, we want to be famous for Quality, Service, Innovation, and Integrity (QSII)."

Nearly 60 years later, long-time employees use those precise words to describe Keithley the man. They're keys to what made him and his company recognized globally for designing and manufacturing electronic testing and measuring instruments critical to today's lifestyles. Keithley Instruments had built its reputation worldwide long before globalization was even considered. Its products are critical to the production of products characteristic of today's lifestyle, like cell phones, laptops, or tiny devices in nanotechnology labs.

In short, the Solon, Ohio company's precision electrical test solutions measure and control electrical, physical, and periodic data. Companies would have trouble manufacturing reliable products, especially electronics, without the quality-assured measuring instruments built by Keithley. Its quality, service, integrity, and innovation are so respected that a Nobel Laureate in physics once posed for a newspaper photographer in front of his lab bench stacked with Keithley equipment.

"So many of the electronic devices we use today in our daily lives were designed and manufactured with the help of Keithley's instruments," says Mark Hoersten, vice president of business management and a 25-year veteran at the company.

Keithley's products are in every type of lab and electronics manufacturing operation around the world because of their exacting standards of quality and reliability. In recognition of this, Keithley Instruments received its 19th R&D 100 Award for innovative technology this summer.

A code for all

Both Hoersten and 77-year-old John Yeager, Keithley's first employee, cite QSII when characterizing Keithley, who died in 1999 at 84. "I think that motto really describes him," says Hoersten. "He clearly emphasized quality in all the work we do. Keithley is known for making very difficult and very precise measurement tools."

Keithley chaired the company's Quality Committee well into the early 1990s, even though he was in his 70s. He recognized that the value of his product and his company's reputation were tied closely to the quality benchmarks he was able to meet.

"He was integrity and he was Mr. Quality, just like the company motto," Yeager says. "He was a very upright individual. Never in a million years would you expect Joe to do something" like the company executives recently convicted of accounting and ethical lapses. (See "Friends Everywhere" at www.elecdesign.com, Drill Deeper 11206.) "

In service, he always focused on our customers. It was important that we were solving customer problems," says Hoersten. "I think it was his ability to take in the input from the outside—the customer—that brought Keithley success. The whole concept of getting into low-level impedance came from working with people in the industry."

For example, Keithley Instruments initially developed and sold the Phantom Repeater, an amplifier for low-level electrical signals with high impedance functionality. This made it desirable in many applications. But true success for the fledgling company was sparked by a suggestion from a physics professor friend from Bryn Mawr. The professor often visited Keithley on his way to see his daughter at Oberlin College. As Yeager says, the friend once said, "You ought to make an electrometer." Keithley, who's company later became defined for its low-level electrometers, had to ask, "What is that?"

"We went to work on it," says Yeager. They met with a consultant, studied a commercially available device with a single 2-V setting, and developed their own unit. Keithley's product had two ranges, 2 and 20 V, which "upstaged the competition," says Yeager. "It was the seed that got us started."

Such innovation was a key to the company's successes in the high-technology field of picoammeters, nanovoltmeters, and electrometers. Other innovations soon followed. The Meter Matcher aided in accurately recording the power consumption of a fluorescent lamp. Electrometers were designed with voltmeters, ammeters, and ohmmeters to measure very small currents and resistance. And, a variety of IEEE-488 based computerintegrated products starting with benchtop digital multimeters debuted as early as the late 1970s.

Product innovation wasn't the only way Keithley brought success to his company. He also saw the value of globalization long before it became a buzzword. He began selling in Europe in the 1950s and later in Japan and China—20 to 40 years before it was fashionable to be global, says Hoersten. "It has really given us insight into customers from a global perspective," Hoersten says.

Keithley set up a plant just outside of Munich, Germany, to assemble the Model 602. The batterypowered electrometer featured a higher voltage float than previous units. Yeager did the final inspections. Typical of the company's quality focus, when Yeager identified an insulation problem caused by paint on the unit's back, the company changed its process to selectively paint the back.

From birth to award winner

Keithley was born in 1915 in Peoria, Ill. He received his BS from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1937 and an MS there the next year. He worked at Bell Telephone Laboratories in New York City for two years before becoming an engineer at the Naval Ordnance Lab in Washington, D.C. in 1940. That's where he earned the first of many awards to come, the U. S. Navy's Distinguished Civilian Service Award, for underwater mine firing devices and the development of a patented station selecting system.

With the war's end, Keithley moved to Cleveland and began doing acoustic work for Frank Massa at Massa Laboratories. Keithley soon realized the field didn't match his interests, so in 1946 he left and started Keithley Instruments.

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