There are approximately 85,000 tool and die makers working in the United States. Job growth statistics indicate a moderate decline over the next decade. However, well trained and experienced tool and die makers should have little problem finding work as older workers retire. Employers report difficulty finding new hires with sufficient training.
Tool and die makers are among the most highly skilled production workers. This skill is reflected in pay that is considerably higher than average. In order to be considered fully qualified, tool and die makers must devote several years to classroom instruction and training on the job.
Tool and die makers are artisans who make or repair tools, machine dies, and devices that guide or support machines while they are in operation. They are the artists behind precision tools, as they design and create tools that hold metal to be drilled, bored, or stamped. (These devices are called jigs.) Die makers build metal forms used in stamping and forging operations and create metal molds for die casting and molding plastics, ceramics, and other composites. Tool or parts prototypes might be designed and created by a tool and die maker who then works with the engineers who manufacture it.
Tool and die makers are also able to fix tools, gauges, fixtures, jigs, and parts than have become worn or dented or have lost their precision. A first class tool and die maker uses many kinds of machining tools and precision instruments. The qualities of metals, alloys, plastics, ceramics, and other composite materials when they come into contact with heat or cold is knowledge a master tool and die maker can access immediately. While machinists can create a functional, and sometimes temporary, part for a malfunctioning machine, a tool and die maker is capable of creating a part that is state of the art.
Some tool and die makers are asked to visit a client’s factory or plant and suggest new tools that could make the process more efficient. After the design is completed, a tool and die maker will study blueprints and determine the order of activities required to produce the new tool or die. After the prototype is complete, it is filed and polished.
Computer aided design programs (CAD) and computer aided manufacturing programs (CAM) allow tool and die makers to enter specifications that are then electronically transformed into blueprints. Next, computer numerically controlled machines (CNC) read the programmed instructions and produce the part. Experienced tool and die makers often learn to operate CNC machines, as well as write CNC programs.
Tool and die makers primarily work in tool rooms or on production floors in specialty machine shops. Tool rooms are typically pleasant work environments that are clean, well organized, and cool enough to keep metal work pieces from expanding. Specialty machine shop factory floors are filled with machinery. Many of the computer controlled machines are enclosed to limit employee exposure to noise, dust, and pollution. These machines have parts that move very quickly. It is essential that everyone working around them remain constantly alert to avoid accidents. Most employers require safety equipment be worn, including protective eye and ear wear, masks, and gloves. Safety procedures must be scrupulously followed.
Most tool and die positions are 40 hours a week on a regular schedule. Overtime hours and working weekends can occur, especially when production is in a peak period or there is an urgent problem that must be resolved as quickly as possible.
Employers look for job applicants with exceptional math and problem-solving abilities. Being able to read blueprints, communicate clearly, and stand for long periods of time are also important. Excellent eyesight and careful attention to detail are important attributes. Four to five years of combined classroom and on-the-job training allow an apprentice to become fully qualified. Many tool and die makers begin as long-term apprentices. High school coursework in physics, trigonometry, computers, and geometry are useful.
Some states certify tool and die makers as journey workers after a licensed apprenticeship program has been completed. It is important for tool and die makers to invest is ongoing education, as the field is constantly improving with technological advances.
In terms of advancement, some tool and die makers step into supervisory 0r administrative positions. Others establish their own workshops. Some pursue computer work to develop CNC machine tool programmer skills. Tool and die makers with a bachelor’s degree can pursue work as an engineer or tool designer.
The median hourly pay for tool and die makers is about $23. Those at the low end of the pay scale earn less than $16 per hour, while those with experience and exceptional training earn more than $35 per hour.