Tooling by Design



A Look Back

By: Peter Ulintz

Sunday, January 1, 2012

During the past 50 yr., the metalforming and tool and die industries have undergone more changes than any other corresponding period since the industrial revolution. And, the past decade brought about transformations more radical than the previous 40 yr. combined. At the end of this decade, skills, resources and technologies that did not exist two years ago will be commonplace. So, as we begin 2012, how do we prepare for the future?

Before we look forward, let’s look back at where we’ve been. After World War II, countless numbers of skilled tradesmen immigrated to the United States from the ravished landscapes of Europe. They brought with them diversity in culture, work ethic, and technical and shop-floor experience. This broad spectrum of experiences was particularly important to the metalforming and tool and die trades. Stamping-die design and die-construction practices at the time relied exclusively on experienced-based disciplines.

Companies with a workforce having great technical diversity and a breadth of experiences were well-prepared to handle the challenges of designing and building a wide variety of dies. Stampers and die shops could differentiate themselves from their competitors by employing good—not just average—die makers. As a result, experience became the most coveted attribute for any skilled industrial tradesmen, and therefore became synonymous with job security, high wages, advancement, prestige, respect and influence.

During the 1960s and 1970s, it was common for a tool and die maker to receive a part print and be expected to design and build a die from this information alone. These tasks involved calculating flat blanks, developing and dimensioning strip layouts, making detail sketches, manufacturing the die components, assembling the die and trying it out in the press. Once the die entered production, the die maker also often assumed responsibility for its maintenance.

Apprentices learned how to machine components and assemble dies. Much of their training focused on developing machining and hand-working skills, interpreting die layouts and calculating dimensions. Typical toolroom machines of the era included planers, shapers, duplicating machines, pantographs, profile grinders, surface grinders, drill presses and manual milling machines. Advanced die shops of the era might have had EDM capability or even a tape-drive NC machine.

The 1980s brought about an energy crisis, inflation and rising wages. Automakers became intensely focused on controlling costs, improving vehicle fuel efficiency and reducing time to market. This gave rise to new mainstream technologies such as computer-aided design (CAD) and CNC machining. Laser beams, once a feared weapon of extraterrestrial aliens in our favorite science-fiction movies, now were being used to cut steel.

Government mandates to increase vehicle fuel economy led automakers to reduce vehicle weight by specifying high-strength and dual-phase steels, as well as new aluminum alloys, some of which required annealing between forming operations and heat treating afterwards. During this period of time, the experienced-based method of designing and building dies began to break down. Very few stamping and tooling professionals possessed any experience with these new materials.

By the 1990s, solid-model 3-D CAD, multiaxis CNC machining, waterjet-cutting technology, multiaxis lasers and other computer-assisted technologies had become commonplace, while planers, shapers and profile grinders disappeared from the shop floor. Drafting boards in the engineering department gave to high-powered computers, and die designers working on computers took over for the die makers on the floor. New apprentices received training in CAD/CAM in order to draw die details and write CNC programs, and toolrooms were reconfigured to move die components through the shop in a production method.

Die makers started to become die-assembly and tryout specialists, no longer required to plan, detail or machine die components. By the end of the decade, powerful computer-aided engineering (CAE) tools emerged, the most significant being metalforming analysis—arguably the most revolutionary development since the arrival of CAD/CAM.

The past decade continued to transform the face of the metalforming industry. Those working in the tool and die trade no longer own the skills of a generation ago, as many companies now use CAE tools for blank engineering, cost optimization, die-face and addendum design, trim-line development and springback prediction. The emergence of advanced high-strength steels, rapidly developing manufacturing technologies and the retirement of an aging workforce requires companies to reassess how they train the stamping professionals of today and tomorrow. I’ll discuss that next month, when we take a look forward. MF


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