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The annual Federal Government Advocacy Survey taken in December by the National Tooling and Machining Association and the Precision Metalforming Association, and released last week, underscores the lack of skilled labor in the metal working trades. Responses from 199 metal working manufacturers who averaged 77 employees in 2012, show that 91% are experiencing challenges finding qualified employees; 42% of those companies are having “severe challenges” finding employees skilled in the metalworking trades.

Clare Goldsberry

March 5, 2013

3 Min Read
Amid a skills shortage, can machines build molds?

Some other interesting results to this survey regarding the skilled worker challenge include:

  •    69% of survey respondents currently have job openings

  •    81% of companies with openings have between 1 and 5 jobs available

  •    14% of companies with job openings have between 6 and 10 jobs available

  •    5% of companies with job openings have more than 11 jobs available

And it’s expected to get worse. On average, respondents to this survey report planning to hire eight employees in 2013 – and estimated 10% workforce increase; while 60% of these small and medium sized manufacturing businesses anticipate increased sales in2013 with over 56% of those expecting more than a 10% increase in sales.

To help fill the gap in qualified skilled workers for this added growth in business, 68% of the respondents to the survey said they are working directly with community colleges and vocational institutions, 53% are using industry training centers, and 48% are working directly with high schools.

The problem for many mold manufacturers is that mold demand is picking up and lead times are getting tight as OEMs are under pressure to get new products to market faster than ever. Many can’t find the skilled or even semi-skilled employees they need to help get the work out the door, so they’re looking at one alternative they can count on: unattended machining technology.

I remember a “best practices” presentation at an AMBA annual convention back in the 1990s in which the main topic of conversation was how to get the man-hours of a mold build to be more competitive with China. Someone brought up the idea of unattended machining and most of the comments revealed the skepticism of the mold makers there.

“What if the shop catches on fire?” one guy asked. “You can’t leave machines running at night without someone to watch them.”

Another commented: “My biggest problem is finding guys that want to work graveyard shift,” as if he hadn’t even heard the conversation about "lights out" manufacturing. Most agreed at the meeting that unattended machining would never be a real solution.

Craftsman Tool & Mold in Aurora, IL, just added $1 million in new equipment over the past year, with two machines purchased specifically to replace a guy that’s retiring because they couldn’t find anyone who could do the manual work he’d been doing. And the company is doing more and more unattended machining (five to seven machines) overnight and on weekends, monitoring the jobs remotely. [See the accompanying story in the March issue of MMM.]

In fact, just about every mold company I spoke with at the recent Plastec West trade show in Anaheim told me they’re doing more and more unattended or lights out machining. Machine tool and software technology has advanced to the point that it’s become possible to operate with fewer people—or even no one—on the production floor. Between business growth and a shortage of skilled workers, unattended machining has become a viable alternative.

Len Graham, business unit manager for Rexam Mold Manufacturing, said that he’s currently in the completion stage of a new project for Rexam that will take automation in mold manufacturing from just a periodic “lights out” operation when needed to a whole new level of automated mold building from start to finish.

With the graying of the American moldmaker, many of these top-notch companies have come face-to-face with the reality that there are just not enough skilled workers to fill the vacancies that are being left by those retiring. Too many trade schools and community colleges dropped “shop” classes. There was no support for them and modern equipment on which to train young people was too expensive.

Faced with huge demand for these skilled metal workers, many of these schools are now trying to catch up, looking for ways to support manufacturing and fill the skills gap. But, with technology advancing like it has over the past decade, it may be too little too late. Lights out moldmaking may be the wave of the future.

About the Author(s)

Clare Goldsberry

Until she retired in September 2021, Clare Goldsberry reported on the plastics industry for more than 30 years. In addition to the 10,000+ articles she has written, by her own estimation, she is the author of several books, including The Business of Injection Molding: How to succeed as a custom molder and Purchasing Injection Molds: A buyers guide. Goldsberry is a member of the Plastics Pioneers Association. She reflected on her long career in "Time to Say Good-Bye."

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