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Posts Tagged ‘die’

Tool Maker Survival – Part 1

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

Both my father and father-in-law (and his father) were master tool and die makers 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 engineering and design school instead. However, I consider tool making to be a noble profession and one that has contributed immensely to the quality of our lives for many years and will continue to do so for many years to come.

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 the heart of product manufacturing, namely, tooling and tool making.

Although most of our readers are obviously 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.

Beginning a long time ago, the huge transportation market (primarily automotive) still dominates the tooling industry. Because the automotive sector is rapidly outsourcing as much of its manufacturing overseas, it becomes 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 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.

So what does this all mean and where is it all going? Is there a direction or solution for tool makers? That’s what we’ll discuss next time.

Tool Maker Survival – Part 2

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

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.

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.

Like virtually all other aspects of manufacturing, integrating technologies in tool making 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.

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