Something that really struck me as Mark Albert and I were working through this issue's special report on die/mold machining is how sophisticated the "tools" of toolmakers have become. From high level CAD/CAM systems to high speed machining to highly automated EDM, the technology behind the ability to efficiently machine complex 3D forms is among the most challenging to be found anywhere in the metalworking community, anywhere in the world.
This command of technology is in stark contrast to the image that toolmakers suffer outside their own ranks. Ask any person off the street what a toolmaker does, and all you'll generally get is a blank stare. And to be honest, the recognition is not all that great on the production side of manufacturing either. Yes, most manufacturing people do understand what dies and molds are for, but few appreciate what goes into making these tools to today's more demanding standards. The picture of an old-world craftsman chiseling away at his workbench still sticks in the minds of many.
That's miles apart—or perhaps better said, a generation or two apart—from the technological environment of today. It's also a bit ironic given that toolmakers rely on many of the same basic technologies that other manufacturers use, but they often utilize those technologies in more complicated ways and at significantly higher levels.
For example, many die and mold shops must be able to deal, not just with their own CAD/CAM systems, but with their customers' too. They must master multiple forms of modeling—wireframes, surfaces and solids—in a sometimes bewildering array of file formats. Moreover, the NC programs they create are vastly larger and more complex than you'll find virtually anywhere else. That means more difficult machining routines, that must generate ever-smoother surfaces while navigating 3D paths at much faster feed rates.
Even if one understands all that, some people will still make the case that there is a quality to toolmaking that is beyond pure manufacturing science. Indeed, a Japanese machine tool executive I met recently likened toolmaking to fly fishing, meaning that there is a Zen quality to the discipline not present in other forms of production.
I can buy that proposition. But shops need more than the spirit to remain competitive today. Without a broad command of the new technology they are going nowhere fast.