Tool and die makers set up and operate a variety of computer-controlled or mechanically-controlled machine tools to produce precision metal parts, instruments, and tools. They work in machine shops and tool rooms and on factory floors. Most work full time during regular business hours. However, overtime, evening, and weekend work are common.
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Tool and die makers typically do the following:
Toolmakers craft precision tools and tool holders that are used to cut, shape, and form metal and other materials. They also produce jigs and fixtures—devices that hold metal while it is bored, stamped, or drilled—and gauges and other measuring devices. Die makers construct metal forms, called dies, that are used to shape metal in stamping and forging operations. They also make metal molds for die-casting and for molding plastics, ceramics, and composite materials.
Many tool and die makers use CADs to develop products and parts. Specifications entered into computer programs can be used to electronically develop blueprints for the required tools and dies. Computer numeric control programmers use CAD and CAM programs to convert electronic drawings into CAM-based computer programs that contain instructions for a sequence of cutting tool operations. Once these programs are developed, CNC machines follow the set of instructions contained in the program to produce the part. Machinists normally operate CNC machines, but tool and die makers are often trained to both operate CNC machines and write CNC programs, and they may do either task.
There are many different ways to become a skilled tool and die maker. In high school, students should take math courses, especially trigonometry and geometry. They should also take courses in blueprint reading, metalworking, and drafting, if available. Some advanced positions, such as those in the aircraft manufacturing industry, require the use of advanced applied calculus and physics. The increasing use of computer controlled machinery requires machinists and tool and die makers to have basic computer skills before entering a training program.
Formal apprenticeship programs, typically sponsored by a union or manufacturer, are an excellent way to become a machinist or tool and die maker, but they are often hard to get into. Apprentices usually must have a high school diploma or equivalent, and most have taken algebra and trigonometry classes.
Apprenticeship programs consist of paid shop training and related technical instruction lasting between four and five years. The classes are often taught in cooperation with local community colleges or vocational–technical schools.
Although apprenticeship programs may be the best way to learn the job, a growing number of tool and die makers receive their formal technical training from community and technical colleges. These employees often learn while employed by a manufacturer that supports the employee's training goals and gives the needed on-the-job training less formally. Apprentices usually work 40 hours per week and get technical instruction at night. Trainees often begin as machine operators and gradually take on more difficult assignments. Machinists and tool and die makers must have good computer skills to work with CAD/CAM technology, CNC machine tools, and computerized measuring machines. Many machinists become tool and die makers.
Even after completing a formal training program, tool and die makers still need years of experience to become highly skilled. To boost the skill level of tool and die makers and to create a more uniform standard of competency, a number of training facilities, apprenticeship boards, and colleges offer certification programs. Completing a recognized certification program provides tool and die makers with better job opportunities and helps employers judge the abilities of new hires. Journey-level certification is available from apprenticeship boards after completing an apprenticeship. Many employers recognize this certification, and it often leads to better job opportunities.
The vast majority of tool and die makers worked in manufacturing. They work in machine shops and toolrooms and on factory floors, where work areas are well lit and ventilated. Although the work generally is not dangerous, working around machine tools presents certain hazards, and workers must follow precautions. For example, workers must wear protective equipment, such as safety glasses to shield against bits of flying metal and earplugs to dampen the noise produced by machinery.
Most tool and die makers work full time during regular business hours. However, overtime is common. Because many manufacturers run the machinery for long hours, evening and weekend work is also common.
Wages of tool and die makers vary with their skill and with the industry and establishment in which they work. The median hourly wage of tool and die makers was $22.56 in May 2010. (The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than the amount and half earned less.) The lowest 10% earned less than $15.34, and the top 10% earned more than $33.57.
The pay of apprentices is tied to their skill level. As they gain more skills and reach specific levels of performance and experience, their pay increases.