There is currently a labor and skills shortage in the tool and die trade which will impact the future of manufacturing. Like many disciplines, even 4 years, or 8,000 hours, of apprenticeship is not enough to master the trade. This education needs to be followed up by valuable, hands-on experience, and the challenge of continuous learning to keep up with an industry where the processes and materials evolve with new technology and innovation.
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost 75% of tool and die makers are over age 45. That means 40% of the current workforce is eligible or will be eligible to retire in the next 5 to 7 years. With only 2% of tool and die makers under 35 years old, the manufacturing industry is starting to feel the slow, but painful struggle to employ enough skilled die makers, precision machinists, and mold-makers to maintain their tool and die operations.
The National Tooling and Machining Association and the National Institute of Metalworking Skills are working to address this labor shortage challenge by ramping up training programs and meeting with member organizations to work through their needs and concerns. However, those initiatives are not likely to produce new experts fast enough to solve the current labor and skills challenges.
For a manufacturer to get ahead of these challenges facing tool and die, they will need to build a formability system and team capable of running an optimized operation, while continuously improving the process to make the most of the workforce and material they have. This solution can help make sure the impacts of the labor and skills shortage have the least amount of negative impact on a manufacturing operation.
Tool and Die Formability System
An optimized Tool and Die Formability System enables leadership and their team to work off a prioritized work plan, leverage data and analysis to make informed decisions, diagnose issues and problem solve solutions, and make the most of available man-hours and materials. There are three components that need to be in place to build and operate this system:
1. Formability Analysis Lab: This first component sets the die shop up to run a formability system diagnostic so that the team can assess, create, and implement a strategy that will manage and resolve tool and die issues. The core group of die makers should be trained on conducting analysis, such as circle grid analysis and thinning strain analysis, with current inputs and mechanical properties from the steel mill to determine what the final safety limit or safety state of the part is. The die makers are then trained on how to use that analysis to make recommendations on improving any problematic areas, and document all of the process settings and inputs at the time they form the part. Accurate tracking of the part settings can help ensure the output and future products are of the same quality level with the same strain safety. For example, if the die shows signs of deterioration and wear, or the lubricant systems begin to get plugged up and overcome by contaminants, these changes should be noticeable when comparing the current product that is in production with data from the product that was analyzed so improvements can be made to the process and part production. This analysis and data sit within the Reference Panel System.
2. Reference Panel System: Data from the Formability Analysis Lab is used in the Reference Panel System so that, if deviations are found, the team can make an informed decision about how to proceed with the part and if the die needs to be moved to a repair area. If a die is producing a part with the same amount of draw-in and has the impact lines or draw-in amount at the same level as the analyze panel, management can have more confidence that the part being produced is the same exact with no quality issues. Another component of the system is the feedback loop so that die makers and die repair personnel has an opportunity to feed information back to their supervisors, group leaders, die engineering and area manager, as well as make recommendations on how to improve the process and plan for the future.
3. Die Shop Management System: Even when a Formability Analysis Lab and Reference Panel System are in place, an organization will also need to develop self-sustaining leaders and team members that can drive ongoing change management and continuous performance improvement to maintain a quality operation. This management system helps establish prioritized workflows with the proper tools, proper use of available assets, and streamlines daily work assignment activities. A team should be able to start their shift and know within the first 10 minutes specifically what they will be working on and the availability of tools needed to complete that work. This eliminates the time wasted when die makers need to wait to get job assignments from management and when tools are misaligned to the proper assignments. When simple things are proactively handled, such as the availability of a crane to move a die, failure to notify scheduling personnel that the die will be out of service for a number of shifts, or inventory being out for a necessary part, then unnecessarily labor loss and the associated sunk costs can be avoided. A well-executed Die Shop Management System can proactively address these issues, enabling leaders to assign and make decisions so the right die projects are assigned to the right personnel, at the right time, with the right equipment availability.
These three components make up the holistic Tool and Die Formability System. The Formability Analysis Lab improves the process, the Reference Panel System stabilizes the process, and the Die Shop Management System guides an organization towards better utilization of manpower and enables data-driven decision making on the repair and maintenance process.
Tool and Die Skills Training
Skills training is as critical to an optimized process as a holistic Tool and Die Formability System. An industry expert trainer can help improve a workforces’ skills in die making, repairs, and maintenance through hands-on training in:
One contributor to the depletion of domestic skilled die makers is tool and die operations being moved overseas by the automotive industry. When manufacturers have not been building dies themselves, they miss out on the skills development of understanding how changes to the radius, wall angle, or strain distribution impact the part. Manufacturers that have a workforce with less experience will need to have training and systems in place to successfully optimize their tool and die shop within their manufacturing operations. To make up for that loss of experience, an organization can leverage an industry expert trainer’s years of experience with hands-on guided training so that its workforce can improve its understanding of tool and die making.
Proactive Next Steps
If you are a manufacturer with a tool and die workforce, start by conducting an annual critical skills assessment and attrition survey of employees to get a good idea of who is retiring in the next two years and what positions you may need to fill. Although new tool and die experts will be in short supply in the future, the right system and training can help manufacturers utilize their current workforce more efficiently.
Think about your current operations and if the shortage of staff might have an impact. When might your business feel that impact? If you believe your tool and die operations could be more efficient, consider bringing in experts to help develop a Tool and Die Formability System and train your staff to be a highly skilled, efficient workforce.
The Phoenix Group has over 30 years of expertise optimizing formability operations and our strength is in helping organizations get more done by working better and smarter without straining their workforce. Our team offers comprehensive process consulting and training services tailored to the needs and goals of your organization. Before the challenges facing tool and die impact your manufacturing operations, request a consultation with The Phoenix Group to see how you can proactively get ahead.