Tool and die makers are among the most highly skilled workers in manufacturing. These workers produce and repair tools, dies, and special guiding and holding devices that enable machines to produce a variety of products we use daily—from clothing and furniture to heavy equipment and parts for aircraft. They may work in manufacturing plants that produce tools in house, or in machine shops that only produce specialized machine tools for other manufacturers.
Toolmakers craft precision tools and machines that are used to cut, shape, and form metal and other materials. They also produce jigs and fixtures—devices that hold metal while it is bored, stamped, or drilled—and gauges and other measuring devices. Die makers construct metal forms, called dies, that are used to shape metal in stamping and forging operations. They also make metal molds for diecasting and for molding plastics, ceramics, and composite materials. Some tool and die makers craft prototypes of parts, and then, working with engineers and designers, determine how best to manufacture the part. In addition to developing, designing, and producing new tools and dies, these workers also may repair worn or damaged tools, dies, gauges, jigs, and fixtures.
To perform these functions, tool and die makers employ many types of machine tools and precision measuring instruments. They also must be familiar with the machining properties, such as hardness and heat tolerance of a wide variety of common metals, alloys, plastics, ceramics, and other composite materials. Tool and die makers are knowledgeable in machining operations, mathematics, and blueprint reading. In fact, tool and die makers often are considered highly specialized machinists. Machinists typically produce less elaborate parts for machinery, while tool and die makers craft very durable, complex machine tools. As a result, tool and die makers must have a general understanding of the mechanics of machinery.
While many tools and dies are designed by engineers or tool designers, tool and die makers are also trained to design tools and often do. They may travel to a customer's plant to observe the operation and suggest ways in which a new tool could improve the manufacturing process.
Once a tool or die is designed, tool and die makers, working from blueprints, plan the sequence of operations necessary to manufacture the tool or die. They measure and mark the pieces of metal that will be cut to form parts of the final product. At this point, tool and die makers cut, drill, or bore the part as required, checking to ensure that the final product meets specifications. Finally, these workers assemble the parts and perform finishing jobs, such as filing, grinding, and polishing surfaces. While manual machining has declined, it is still used for unique parts and sharpening of used tools.
Many tool and die makers use computer-aided design (CAD) to develop products and parts. Specifications entered into computer programs can be used to electronically develop blueprints for the required tools and dies. Numerical tool and process control programmers use CAD or computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) programs to convert electronic drawings into CAM-based computer programs that contain instructions for a sequence of cutting tool operations. Once these programs are developed, computer numerically controlled (CNC) machines follow the set of instructions contained in the program to produce the part. Computer-controlled machine tool operators or machinists normally operate CNC machines, but tool and die makers are often trained in both operating CNC machines and writing CNC programs; and they may perform either task. CNC programs are stored electronically for future use, saving time and increasing worker productivity.
After machining the parts, tool and die makers carefully check the accuracy of the parts using many tools, including coordinate measuring machines, which use sensor arms and software to compare the dimensions of the part to electronic blueprints. Next, they assemble the different parts into a functioning machine. They file, grind, shim, and adjust the different parts to properly fit them together. Finally, tool and die makers set up a test run, using the tools or dies they have made to make sure that the manufactured parts meet specifications. If problems occur, they compensate by adjusting the tools or dies.
Tool and die makers may either work in toolrooms or manufacturing production floors. Toolrooms are generally kept clean and cool to minimize heat-related expansion of metal workpiece, while specialty machine shops have a factory floor covered with machinery. To minimize the exposure of workers to moving parts, machines have guards and shields.
Most computer-controlled machines are totally enclosed, minimizing workers' exposure to noise, dust, and the lubricants used to cool workpieces during machining. Working around this machinery can still be dangerous, so tool and die makers must follow safety rules and wear protective equipment, such as safety glasses to shield against bits of flying metal, earplugs to protect against noise, and gloves and masks to reduce exposure to hazardous lubricants and cleaners. These workers also need stamina, because they often spend much of the day on their feet and may do moderately heavy lifting.
Companies employing tool and die makers have traditionally operated only one shift per day. Overtime and weekend work are common, especially during peak production periods.
Education & Training Required
Most tool and die makers learn their trade through 4 or 5 years of education and training in formal apprenticeships or in other postsecondary programs offered at local community colleges or technical schools. These programs often include a mix of classroom instruction and paid hands-on experience. According to most employers, apprenticeship programs are the best way to learn all aspects of tool and die making. Most apprentices must have a high school diploma, GED, or equivalent. In high school, students should take courses in physics and mathematics, including trigonometry and geometry.
Traditional apprenticeships usually require that the apprentice complete a specific number of work and classroom hours to complete the program, which typically takes 4 or 5 years. Some companies and State apprenticeship programs, however, are now shifting from time-based programs to competency-based programs. Under competency-based programs, apprentices can move ahead more quickly by passing a series of exams and demonstrating competency in a particular job skill.
While formal apprenticeship programs may be the best way to learn the job, many tool and die makers receive most of their formal classroom training from community and technical colleges, while working for a company that often supports the employee's training goals and provides the needed on-the-job training less formally. Apprentices usually work 40 hours per week and attend technical college courses at night. These trainees often begin as machine operators and gradually take on more difficult assignments. Many machinists become tool and die makers.
During their training, tool and die maker trainees learn to operate milling machines, lathes, grinders, laser and water cutting machines, wire electrical discharge machines, and other machine tools. They also learn to use handtools for fitting and assembling gauges and other mechanical and metal-forming equipment. In addition, they study metalworking processes, such as heat treating and plating. Classroom training usually consists of tool designing, tool programming, blueprint reading, and mathematics courses, including algebra, geometry, calculus, trigonometry, and statistics. Tool and die makers must have good computer skills to work with CAD/CAM technology, CNC machine tools, and computerized measuring machines.
Even after completing a formal training program, tool and die makers still need years of experience to become highly skilled. Most specialize in making certain types of tools, molds, or dies.
Other Skills Required
State apprenticeship boards certify tool and die makers as journey workers after they have completed a licensed program. While a State certification is not necessary to work as a tool and die maker, it gives workers more flexibility in employment, as many employers require this certification. Apprentices usually must be at least 18 years old, in addition to having a high school education and high school mathematics classes.
Because tools and dies must meet strict specifications—precision to one ten-thousandth of an inch is common—the work of tool and die makers requires skill with precision measuring devices and a high degree of patience and attention to detail. Good eyesight is essential. People entering this occupation also should be mechanically inclined, able to work and solve problems independently, have strong mathematical skills, and be capable of doing work that requires concentration and physical effort. Tool and die makers who visit customers' plants need good communication, interpersonal, and sales skills.
Employers generally look for someone with a strong educational background, as they desire intelligent, dependable workers. Problem-solving skills are also a must in this occupation, as technologies and skills are constantly changing in this profession. As automation continues to change the way tools and dies are made, workers regularly need to update their skills to learn how to operate new equipment. Also, as materials such as alloys, ceramics, polymers, and plastics are increasingly used, tool and die makers need to learn new machining techniques to deal with these new materials.
How to Advance
There are several ways for skilled workers to advance. Some move into supervisory and administrative positions in their firms or they start their own shop. Others may take computer courses and become computer-controlled machine tool programmers. With a college degree, a tool and die maker can go into engineering or tool design.
Employment is projected to decline moderately. However, excellent job opportunities are expected, as many employers report difficulty finding qualified applicants.
Median hourly wages of tool and die makers is $32.32. The middle 50 percent earned between $28.00 and $37.99. The lowest 10 percent had earnings of less than $24.69, while the top 10 percent earned more than $44.76. The pay of apprentices is tied to their skill level. As they gain more skills and reach specific levels of performance and experience, their pay increases. About 22 percent of tool and die makers belong to unions.