Blame it on NAFTA or lax trade enforcement, but the "Made in the USA" journey has domestic roadblocks. Here’s one: the skilled workers who make the molds and tools used in automotive parts manufacturing and assembly are on the fast track to extinction.
Nearly 75% of tool and die makers are over age 45, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only 2% are younger than 35. Two out of five are either already eligible to retire, or will be in the next 5 to 7 years.
“When talent is in short supply in tooling, it’s in short supply in manufacturing,” said Jay Baron, President and CEO of the Center for Automotive Research [CAR]. Baron spoke on how to revive the nation's waning tool and die sector to a group of leaders from the automotive industry who had gathered for a two-day brainstorming session the week of April 27. Manufacturing directors from most of the major automakers swapped war stories about not being able to get their orders filled with owners of six-person tooling shops who were barely keeping their doors open. Educators and academics talked about finding innovative ways to fill the labor void and access the latest equipment to train them.
Other challenges include a lack of financing for small operations to upgrade, increasingly complex demands from OEMs, and an explosion in the diversity of materials. Advances in light-weighting and materials science mean an industry that relied on three grades of steel a generation ago now has 200 grades to choose from, along with a proliferation of aluminum, plastic and carbon fiber possibilities. Stepped-up safety regulations and emerging automotive technologies, requiring new parts and more involved configurations, are only adding to the complexity.
Alan Whitted, global head of press shops and dies at FCA and its tooling subsidiary, Autodie, said the industry saw a 36% drop in the number of U.S. tool and die shops between 1998 and 2010. The die shops that have survived have done well at adapting to the cyclical nature of the automotive business by diversifying their services.
Change has been a long time coming. “This thing has been decaying for years,” he declared. “Even twenty-five years ago plus when I graduated, there was nobody going into the auto industry. It was Rust Belt, it was going offshore, it was something nobody ever thought about.”
General Motors has only one tool shop left in the U.S., in Flint. Dan Clarkson, director of GM’s Global Die & Body Center, said that of the 155 die makers there, only five are under 40. “We’ve got 20 apprentices right now, but we agree it’s really hard to find people attracted to coming to the trades.”
James Rohde, executive director of Tianjin Motor Dies Company (TQM), sees the future of American tool and die shops as finishers for their overseas competitors who can churn out cheaper molds and tooling but lack the expertise to meet the most exacting OEM specs. TQM, for instance, contracts with small specialty die shops in the United States, including one in the Detroit suburb of Roseville called Dietech, to finish dies that its Asian plants produce.
The Asian die-makers lack the skills and deep experience. “We can build dies, but what we have in North America are the finest die shops in the world,” Rohdes said. “We aren’t at that level of perfection.”
Journeyman die-makers in the U.S. can pretty much write their own ticket, some of the speakers noted. “I think we have to show our high school sophomores and juniors that the die industry is as good as Google, as good as Apple,” said Rohde.
Putre, Laura (2017). "Tool and Dying: Auto Leaders, From Ford to FCA, Brainstorm on Saving the Shops that Sustain Them". Retrieved from http://www.industryweek.com/supply-chain/tool-and-dying-auto-leaders-ford-fca-brainstorm-saving-shops-sustain-them