Precision metalworkers are skilled crafts workers who produce the tools, dies, molds, cutting devices, and guiding and holding devices used in the mass production of a variety of products. Tool makers produce precision tools for cutting, shaping, and forming metal and other materials. They also produce jigs and fixtures—the devices for holding the tools and metal while it is being worked—and various gauges and other measuring devices. Die makers make precision metal forms, or dies, used in stamping and forging metal. Mold makers design and make metal molds for molding plastics, ceramics, and composite materials. In some cases, the term tool and die maker is used generically, referring to any or all of these job categories.
Precision Metalworker Career History
The modern machine tool industry came into existence around the beginning of the 19th century. One of the most important early contributors was Eli Whitney, the American inventor and manufacturer who is credited with the first successful use of standardized, interchangeable parts in manufacturing. When Whitney received an order from the U.S. government in 1798 for thousands of muskets, he envisioned a new work method. He realized that he could design machines that would allow unskilled workers to turn out many identical copies of each part in a musket. In carrying out his plan, he invented jigs (tool-guiding patterns) and fixtures (devices that clamp workpieces in place). They were the first versions of devices that are very important in today’s tool and die making.
Another significant invention of the 19th century was the power press, which could be fitted with presswork dies, or stamping dies, to cut and form items out of sheet metal. Today, the fabrication of presswork dies remains an important part of tool and die making. Other significant developments in the field have included methods for die-casting metals and injection-molding materials, such as plastics.
The rapid growth of mass-production techniques in the late 19th century spurred the development of tool and die shops, mostly small, independent contractors, who today employ the majority of precision metalworkers in the United States. Also, as manufacturing industries came to use more kinds of precision tools and dies, the workers who fabricate them have become increasingly specialized. So, even though today’s tools and dies make hundreds of thousands of mass-produced parts, they themselves must be custom made by highly skilled craftsworkers. Today’s tooling shops typically perform a few very sophisticated types of tasks, rather than a broad range of tool making and die making.
Precision Metalworker Job Description
Tool, die, and mold makers are among the most highly skilled production workers in the economy. They possess a broad knowledge of machining operations, can read complex blueprints, and are able to do complicated mathematical calculations. They may produce many different kinds of devices or they may specialize in just one item. In a small shop, a single worker is typically responsible for all the steps necessary to complete a device from start to finish, while in a larger shop, specialized production tasks are allocated among several workers, with the tool maker or die maker acting as a job supervisor.
Many types of machine shops and workers are covered under the tool and die category. They include tool and die shops that produce dies, punches, die sets and components, sub-presses, jigs and fixtures, and special checking devices. Also included are companies that manufacture molds for die-casting and foundry casting, and shops that make metal molds for plastics, rubber, plaster, and glass working.
In general, pressworking dies are used to cut and shape sheet metals with electrical or hydraulic presses. Composed of two units, the upper part attaches to a press ram and the lower part attaches to a press bed. Molding dies, used to form both metals and plastics, consist of two units which when closed form a cavity into which molten material is poured.
No matter what the shop produces, however, when a job first arrives, the tool and die makers must analyze instructions, blueprints, sketches, or models of the finished product. Using such information, they decide how to go about making the device. After the dimensions are computed, the tool and die makers plan the layout and assembly processes and decide on a sequence of operations for machining the metal.
When the plan is clear, workers select and lay out metal stock, measuring and marking the metal, and if necessary, cutting it into pieces of the approximate size needed for the project. They set up the machine tools, such as lathes, drill presses, and grinders, and carefully cut, bore, and drill the metal according to their predetermined plan. In the machining process, they closely monitor the dimensions of the workpiece since their work must have a high degree of accuracy—frequently within ten-thousandths of an inch. Measuring equipment, such as micrometers, gauge blocks, and dial indicators, is used to ensure precision.
When satisfied that the parts are accurately machined in accordance with the original specifications, tool and die makers fit the pieces together to make the final product. They may need to do finishing work on the product, such as filing and smoothing surfaces. Depending on the size and complexity of the device, the production process may take weeks or months to complete.
Modern technology is changing the way tools are developed and produced. Firms now commonly use computer-aided design to develop products and parts, and to design the tooling to make the parts. These tool drawings are then processed by a computer program to calculate cutting paths and the sequence of operations. Once these instructions are developed, computer numerical control tool machines are usually used to produce the individual components of the tool. Often, these programs are stored for future use.
Precision Metalworker Career Requirements
Applicants for jobs in this field need to have at least a high school or vocational school education. Courses in mathematics, blueprint reading, drafting, computers, metalworking, and machine shop are very useful.
Precision metalworkers can learn their trade either through informal on-the-job training or formal apprenticeships, which most employers prefer because of the thoroughness of the training. Lasting four to five years, apprenticeships combine a planned and supervised on-the-job training program with class work in related fields. On the job, apprentices learn how to set up and operate machine tools, such as lathes, milling machines, grinders, and jig borers. They also learn to use other mechanical equipment, gauges, and various hand tools. In addition, they receive classroom instruction in blueprint reading, mechanical drawing, tool programming, shop theory, shop mathematics, properties of various metals, and tool design. Many apprenticeship-training facilities have incorporated a set curriculum established by the National Institute of Metalworking Skills (NIMS). After students complete the established courses and pass performance evaluations and written exams, they receive a formal recognition of competency, a NIMS credential. This designation aids in their job search by confirming their skills and knowledge of the metalworking field.
Workers who become on-the-job trainees are initially assigned simple tasks that usually involve operating machines; later they are given increasingly more complex work. They pick up skills gradually. One drawback to this method is that it may take many years to learn all the necessary skills.
Tool and die makers or mold makers may start out as machinists. They supplement their metalworking experience with additional training, which may include layout work, shop mathematics, blueprint reading, heat-treating, and the use of precision tools, through vocational or correspondence schools.
Precision metalworkers have a mechanical aptitude and the ability to work with careful attention to detail. To ensure the absolute precision of their work, they are very methodical and continuously check measurements of the workpiece throughout the job. Workers also need to be able to work as efficiently as possible, with a minimum waste of time or materials. Good eyesight is a must, and in some jobs, workers must be able to lift moderately heavy objects.
Because they often work without close supervision, tool and die makers need to be self-motivated and organized in their work habits. In addition, they need good communication skills to help them work in cooperation with other workers.
Exploring Precision Metalworker Career
There are several ways to learn about precision metal-working. Hobbies such as tinkering with cars, making models, and assembling electronic equipment may be helpful in testing patience, accuracy, and mechanical ability, all of which are important qualities for tool and die makers. A field trip to a mold shop or tool and die shop can give you a glimpse of the work in this field and may offer the opportunity to talk to experienced workers. Even better is a part-time or summer job in such a setting. Although your work would probably be basic labor, such as sweeping floors, the experience could provide a valuable opportunity to observe firsthand the day-to-day activities in a machine shop.
Most precision metalworkers are employed in independent job shops where tools and dies are tailor-made for a variety of manufacturers. These shops are generally located in the Midwest, Northeast, and West. The largest concentration is in Michigan. Precision metalworkers also work in industries that manufacture machines and equipment for metalworking, automobiles, and other motor vehicles, aircraft, and plastics products. Among large manufacturers, such as automakers, however, there seems to be a trend to close in-house shops.
There are various sources for information about apprentice programs and job openings for prospective precision metalworkers. These include the state employment offices; local employers, such as tool and die shops and manufacturing firms; various metalworking trade associations; and the local offices of unions, such as the United Auto Workers or the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. Additionally, high school, vocational school, and technical institute students may get help from their teachers or the career services office at their schools.
After completing apprenticeship training, workers often need several more years’ experience to learn the most difficult and specialized skills. Well-qualified, experienced workers may have several avenues of advancement open to them. There is a shortage of precision metalworkers, so opportunities are plentiful for those who have good experience. Some may choose to move into a larger shop for more pay or accept a supervisory position. Others may decide to become a tool designer or specialist in programming computer numerical control tool machines.
Another possibility for some tool makers is to become a tool inspector in an industry that requires a particularly high degree of accuracy in components. Many workers go into business for themselves, opening their own independent job shops to make items for manufacturing firms that do not maintain their own tool-making or die-making department.
Earnings for tool and die makers are generally good. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average annual wage was $43,580 in 2005. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $28,500, while the top 10 percent earned more than $66,200. Workers in mold making earned a median salary of $25,060 with the lowest paid 10 percent earning $16,640 and the highest paid 10 percent earning $39,650 or more in 2005.
According to Salary.com, in 2006 the median salary for entry-level tool and die makers was $38,855 with the middle 50 percent earning between $34,322 and $45,000. Those with several years of experience earned between $43,828 and $52,902. Senior-level tool and die makers earned between $47,549 and $59,389 or more. Salary levels vary somewhat in different areas of the country, with workers in the western and Midwestern states earning more than workers in the northeastern and southern states. The size of the employer is also a factor in salary level. Tool and die makers who work for larger establishments tend to have proportionally higher wages.
In addition to regular earnings, most precision metalworkers receive benefits such as health insurance, paid vacation days, and retirement plans.
Precision metalworkers typically work 40 hours per week, although overtime is not unusual. Most plants that employ these workers operate only one shift per day. They usually work in shops that are adequately lighted, temperature-controlled, and well ventilated. Their work areas are not typically very noisy, as opposed to production departments. There are exceptions, however—tool and die departments that are near production areas or heat-treating or casting areas may be hot and noisy. Workers spend much of the day standing and moving about, and they may occasionally have to lift moderately heavy objects.
To avoid injury from machines and flying bits of metal, workers must follow good safety practices and use appropriate protective gear, including safety glasses and hearing protectors. In some settings, workers are exposed to smoky conditions, and they may get oil, coolants, and other irritating substances on their skin.
Since most precision metalworkers work on a variety of projects, their work is seldom routine. In some cases, workers are completing several jobs at once. Many who choose this field find the work to be very satisfying. They typically work with little supervision. They also have the pleasure of seeing a project through from start to finish and knowing that they have done a precise and skillful job.
Precision Metalworker Career Outlook
Although employers report difficulty in finding skilled workers for their jobs, the employment of precision metalworkers is expected to decline through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. More numerically controlled machine tools and other automated equipment are being used so fewer operations are being done by hand, resulting in fewer workers being needed. Furthermore, some products that are mass-produced using tools and dies are being imported from abroad, as are some tools and dies. China, for example, is becoming a competitor in the tool and die-making field, although their technology is not yet at the level of shops here.
Despite this employment prediction, there are still openings for new workers each year. Many of the workers presently employed in these occupations are approaching retirement, which will result in job openings. Many more openings will occur due to individuals advancing into other fields. Employers in almost every area of the country are experiencing significant trouble filling positions, according to several trade associations. Highly skilled workers can continue to expect to have very good job opportunities if the shortage grows more acute.
These craftsworkers play a key role in the operation of many firms. As firms continue to invest in new equipment and modify production techniques, they will continue to rely heavily on skilled tool and die makers for retooling. This, coupled with the growing demand for products that use machined parts, should help to keep demand constant for qualified precision metalworkers.