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Jeff Rowe
Jeff Rowe
Jeffrey Rowe has more than 40 years of experience in all aspects of industrial design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 1,000 articles for CAD, CAM, CAE, and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the … More »

Creating Excitement and Closing Skills Gap In Manufacturing

December 16th, 2015 by Jeff Rowe

My late father-in-law (and his father) were master machinists who made excellent tools and decent livings over the course of their careers. I chose not to follow in their footsteps, but rather, to go to college instead. However, I have always considered tool making and manufacturing to be noble professions and ones that have contributed immensely to the quality of our lives.

With all the news we continue to hear today about product design, engineering, and manufacturing increasingly being outsourced in every direction away from North America, surprisingly little coverage seems to be given to one of the foundational pillars of product manufacturing, namely, tooling and tool making.

Although most of our readers are manufacturing-savvy, let’s first define what we mean by “tooling,” because it’s often a misunderstood term by those outside manufacturing. Simply put, tooling entails the tools, machines, or other devices required to manufacture products – everything from car fenders to detergent bottles. The two most prominent groups of toolmakers are die makers whose tools stamp out metal parts, and mold makers whose tools mold plastic parts.

Breaking Tool Making – Is Tool Making Your Passion?

The transportation sector (primarily automotive) still dominates the tooling industry. Because the automotive sector is outsourced much of its manufacturing overseas, it has become very clear why tool and die makers, especially the family-owned small ones with five to 100 employees have suffered the most. It’s estimated that approximately 60% of stamping dies and 40% of plastic molds are used directly or indirectly by automakers worldwide, so it’s no wonder that the smaller tool shops are bearing the brunt of offshore outsourcing. This offshore outsourcing has cost a huge number of tooling jobs in North America, according to estimates from several sources.

Historically, toolmakers and machinists have been among the most highly skilled and highest paid trades in the manufacturing world, but also people who provided among the highest value-added services on or near the manufacturing floor. Although some would argue that technologically enhanced professions are just as valuable, a good toolmaker/machinist is still a true asset and value-added provider today. If nothing else, these toolmakers have been instrumental in the quality level and success of manufacturing in North America for 200+ years.

As if offshore outsourcing weren’t enough of a problem, there is also the problem of money. Let’s face it, tools are expensive to make and toolmakers generally don’t get paid until a job is complete. In fact, many toolmakers are forced to wait for months to be paid until the customer is satisfied with the quality of parts that a tool is producing. During this period, however, toolmakers’ bills must still be paid to keep their businesses running. This payment lag also can make it difficult for toolmakers to obtain bank loans to either allow toolmakers to grow their businesses, or merely keep them afloat until payment is finally received.

Tough Times For Tool Makers Continue
It’s no secret that many tool makers have experienced and are still experiencing difficult times.

By necessity, the tooling industry is transforming from its roots as a craft to a future as a complex business. For this transformation to be successful, the tooling industry as a whole must realize that it is not just undergoing a temporary downturn in business, but a radical restructuring. This restructuring is evident in not only mergers and acquisitions (consolidation), but also in cooperative and collaborative practices taking place between small- and medium-sized tool shops. Additionally, new business models are being developed by innovative toolmakers for supporting their ability to compete today and tomorrow with just about anyone, regardless of geographic location.

Introduction to Tool and Die Making

Restructuring an industry, however, is an extremely tall order because it involves cultural change as much as it does developing new business models. One of the toughest cultural aspects that must be recognized and addressed is the fact that although tool making historically has been regarded as a craft requiring high degrees of skill, unfortunately, it is increasingly becoming regarded as a commodity.

What, a commodity with no real distinguishing characteristics?

To a certain extent, yes, (although there are notable exceptions) because what was done by hand and eye by a select number of tool shops can now be performed by just about any shop anywhere, due to technologies (3D solid modeling, rapid tooling and manufacturing processes, high-speed machining (HSM), etc.) available to just about anybody who chooses to employ them. There is a remedy to this commodity perception; however, by seeking out niches and having outstanding product, material, process and customer knowledge, and many North American tool shops are embracing these practices.

Flling the Skills Gap — Makers to the Rescue?
Another problem of chronic offshoring has been the growing skills-gap crisis in manufacturing. The number of baby-boomers retiring has become a flood while the number of young people interested in manufacturing has slowed to a trickle. Most of us, however, haven’t been aware that another cultural change is happening at the same time that could prove a boon to manufacturers — the maker movement — whose passion could be channeled to create the next generation of skilled and motivated manufacturers.

That, in a nutshell, is the argument of Gene Sherman, a self-described maker who has been a machinist and toolmaker, and is now an educator and entrepreneur as the founder of Vocademy—The Makerspace in Riverside, California.

In an article from Manufacturing Engineering, he says, “The maker movement is massive and we have to take advantage of it for the sake of our country,” Sherman said. “Because the skills gap scares me.”

The skills gap in manufacturing and the maker movement have a common thread in the reduction or outright loss of shop class and what used to be called vocational education in most US high schools in recent decades.

But something interesting started to happen in the first years of the new millennium. In the early 2000s, what became known as the maker movement started to form in this country. “It was very loosely knit—people in their garages, people at their kitchen tables, if you were fortunate enough you had a grandpa with some tools in his garage who’d let the grandchildren in, and you’d start tinkering and playing,” Sherman said. Makerspaces start to spring up—they could be anything from a couple of people in a kitchen to a small office in a company to a garage with a bunch of people.

“The maker movement shows that people want to learn, people want to make things. It’s changing this country in a good way. It’s enabling people to become the innovators,” Sherman said.

The maker movement—“it’s been going on too long to call it a fad,” Sherman noted—is fostering innovation and teaching hands-on skills that can surely benefit manufacturing employers.

“There’s education, there’s industry, and then there’s the growing maker movement. Makerspaces are what connect all three of those pieces together,” Sherman argued. “They’re hands-on education based on what manufacturing needs.”

The maker movement can end up being “a solution to the skills gap,” Sherman insisted. “Granted it’s not going to come tomorrow. For 20 years we’ve been doing it wrong. But right now the maker movement is growing and it’s massive.”

Like virtually all other aspects of manufacturing, integrating technologies in tool making and manufacturing assist in becoming more competitive, but in the end, it is the creativity and adaptivity of people (both on the production floor and in the management office) to an ever changing business climate, in concert with appropriate technologies, that will ultimately win the battle and more business. Finally, a continual stream of young and qualified people entering manufacturing are essential for this vital part of our economy to thrive.

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