Peter Ulintz Peter Ulintz
PMA Technical Consultant

What Does a Tool and Die Maker Do?

April 26, 2023
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Does your company struggle to find qualified candidates for apprenticeship programs? Part of the problem: a lack of interest, or more likely a lack of awareness by high school and vocational school students of apprenticeship opportunities in manufacturing. Those seeking apprenticeships often choose construction trades instead, leaving many manufacturing apprenticeships vacant. This proves particularly true with tool and die apprenticeships because most people have no idea what a tool and die maker does. Our inability to describe to young people the roles, responsibilities and opportunities available to tool and die makers contributes to the lack of interest in this field. If you struggle to explain the complexities of this trade, here’s some help.

Tool and die makers possess a range of specialized skills, knowledge and experience related to designing, producing and maintaining the dies, molds, tools and fixtures used to manufacture various products. 

Die makers serve apprenticeships to learn how to read and interpret technical product drawings, and to gain understanding of the precise dimensions and specifications of the parts their dies will make. In addition to other specialized skills and knowledge, tool and die makers need access to advanced tools and equipment, such as CAD/CAM software, precision measuring instruments, specialized cutting tools and state-of-the-art computer-controlled machinery.

And, many die designers and tooling engineers begin their careers as tool and die apprentices.

Design and Engineering

Designing metal stamping dies involves a series of steps that require careful planning and execution. The first step in designing a die: Define the project scope and requirements. This includes identifying the type of part to be produced, the material it will be made from, the required tolerances and surface finishes, and any other specifications or constraints that must be controlled during production. This information guides the design process and ensures that the final product meets the required standards.

With the project scope and requirements defined, the die designer and die maker then develop a process layout for the die. They create concept drawings and determine the sequence of operations required to produce the desired part. The concept incorporates a clear understanding of the part geometry, tolerances, the number of process steps and the process methodology required to produce the part.

Dies are designed based on one of several processing methods including single-station dies loaded and unloaded by hand or with automation; progressive dies that automatically feed coil strip through multiple stations to incrementally cut and form the desired part as it remains attached to the coil strip; transfer dies consisting of multiple single-station dies that automatically feed coil strip or blanks into the die and mechanically transport parts from one die station to the next; or progressive-transfer dies—sometimes called hybrid dies—that combine the benefits of progressive and transfer dies.

With the desired concept in place, CAD software is used to create a detailed design of the die. This may involve the creation of custom punches and dies, as well as other specialized tooling to perform specific operations. The die must be designed to meet required tolerances and specifications, and manufactured to exacting standards to ensure precise, accurate operation.

Construction and Validation

After the design phase comes machining of die components and die assembly. Die makers must understand the properties of different tool-steel materials and select, handle and machine them appropriately to ensure long life and production of high-quality parts. This requires knowledge about metallurgy, heat treatment techniques and surface-finishing methods to ensure creation of durable die components with the required surface characteristics.

The die maker assembles the die to precise clearances and tolerances to ensure accurate and repeatable operation. Die makers must be skilled in using advanced machinery such as CNC machines, EDM machines, and other specialized equipment to manufacture parts to exact specifications. Following machining comes secure assembly of components into a precision die set that ensures proper component alignment.

After assembly, the die enters a tryout press to test and refine its performance. This involves a series of test runs to identify any issues or areas for improvement. The results of these tests enable refinement of the die design and any necessary tooling adjustments. This process may be repeated several times until the die runs at peak performance. 

The final step: Implement the die into production by integrating the die into the production stamping line and ensuring that it runs smoothly and produces parts to the required specifications at the specified production speed. The process is closely monitored to identify any issues or areas for improvement.

Die makers also perform periodic die maintenance and service to ensure continued performance over the lifetimes of the dies.

One of the most challenging problems faced by tool and die makers: the increasing complexity of parts. Advances in technology and engineering have resulted in more intricate products that require more precision in their design, manufacture and maintenance. Tool and die makers must adapt constantly to changes in technology, skill requirements and market conditions to remain relevant and successful in their field. They also must find ways to improve efficiency, reduce costs and increase productivity to remain competitive, as they face intense competition from other countries, particularly those with lower labor costs.

The tool and die making industry faces a shortage of skilled workers that makes it difficult for companies to find qualified candidates to fill open positions. This shortage arises from several factors, including the retirement of experienced workers and a lack of interest among younger generations in pursuing careers in this field. 

If they ask you, “What does a tool and die maker do?” Now you know. MF

Industry-Related Terms: CAD, CNC, Die, Form, Surface, Transfer
View Glossary of Metalforming Terms

Technologies: Tooling

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