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Conference to Examine ‘Crisis’ in Auto Toolmaking

Bill Koenig
By Bill Koenig Senior Editor, SME Media

ANN ARBOR, MI — The auto industry’s constraint in introducing new models because of a labor shortage to make dies, molds,  jigs, fixtures and other tooling will be the focus of a conference next month.

The industry faces a proliferation of new models and automotive materials. The more models, the more tools necessary to produce parts. It also needs tools to produce parts from an increasing variety of materials, such as high-strength steels, aluminum and composites. That’s adding to the complexity of tooling.

All of that is occurring amid a skills shortage as experienced toolmakers begin to retire. The Center for Automotive Research (CAR; Ann Arbor, MI) estimates as many as 75% of current tool and die workers at some companies may retire over the next five to seven years. As a result, automakers may be held back in bringing new vehicles to market.

“One of the automakers called us up and said we have a crisis,” said Jay Baron, CAR’s president and chief executive officer.

CAR has organized the T3 Manufacturing Summit, to be held April 24-25 in Grand Rapids, MI. The gathering is intended to spur brain storming among automakers, independent tool shops and public agencies. Conference sponsors include five automakers: General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. FCA US, Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co.

“It’s a manufacturing issue facing the entire auto industry,” Baron said. “The industry knows we can’t do this one company at a time.”

Faster Redesigning

The industry’s need for tooling is in part because automakers are redesigning cars and trucks faster with quicker “freshening,” or mid-cycle changes, to respond to customer demand. Automakers are also turning out “multi-material” vehicles to cut weight to make them more fuel efficient to meet regulatory demands.

Steel has been the dominant material in car and trucks. There are now grades of high-strength steel (stronger than traditional steel, so less metal is needed) as well as increased use of aluminum and composite materials. Among other things, that affects wear on tools.

Then there’s the labor issue. In the past, auto plants had various job classifications. A goal of auto plant workers was to move up to high-paid skilled trades position. Over the past three decades, automakers have reduced the number of classifications. GM, Ford and FCA (the former Chrysler) did so in labor negotiations with the United Auto Workers union.

In the past, it might take an auto worker 10 years to work up to being a tool and die maker, CAR’s Baron said. “We don’t attract anyone for that 10-year duration anymore.”

What’s more, GM, Ford and FCA cut jobs as they fought to survive a major recession brought on by the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008.

‘Limiting Factor’

“Ten years ago, we got rid of as many people as we could,” said Kristin Dziczek, director of CAR’s industry, labor and economics group. “Nobody was thinking five years out. Nobody was thinking about growth on the other side” of the recession.

Now, “The president is looking to bring more manufacturing to the US,” Dziczek said, referring to President Donald Trump. “Tooling is a limiting factor.”

Both automakers and independent shops need to develop skills of younger workers and will need to take a long-term approach, Dziczek said.

“We’ll be doing this through a downturn,” she said, referring to the next auto recession. “We’re going to have to do that through a demographic wave.”

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