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October 24, 2002

6 Min Read
Tool, product designers trained for the future

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Though IT Sligo is teaching the latest in CAD, CAM, and CNC toolmaking technology, all students begin with manually operated machines to understand what the computerized systems are doing.

By most measures, Ireland has one of the healthiest economies in Europe, led by rapid development in the medical-pharmaceutical and communications-electronics sectors. This in turn has spurred solid growth in plastics-based manufacturing, and in particular the moldmaking sector. Curious to see how the Irish have dealt with the problem of finding trained toolmakers, IMM visited one of the principal Irish centers of moldmaker training and education, the Institute of Technology in Sligo.

How Do You Train Moldmakers?
IT Sligo is a degree-granting institution for the humanities, business, science, and engineering. It also offers diploma-level training that is roughly the equivalent of junior college in the U.S., as well as skills-oriented, certificate-level training. Within the Institute’s Engineering Technology department, IT Sligo provides academic training for an apprenticeship program, which is one path to becoming a toolmaker.

The toolmaking apprenticeship is a four-year program driven by Ireland’s national training and employment authority, the Foras Áiseanna Saothair, or FÁS. The four years are divided into seven phases. Three of them are educational training such as provided by IT Sligo, but these comprise a maximum of 40 weeks of the four years. The rest is spent in on-the-job training (OJT) with the employer sponsoring the apprentice.

Recruitment for all FÁS apprentice programs reached record levels this year with 8100 registrations. That compares with 7817 in 2001 and as few as 3000 just a few years ago. More than half of those starting FÁS programs this year were female. FÁS, which is funded by the Irish government, the National Training Fund, and the European Union, spent e821 million ($805 million) on its activities in 2001. By way of comparison, consider that Ireland’s population is less than 4 million people. If there were a similar activity in the U.S. proportional to its population, there would be about 600,000 registrations and an expenditure of around $56 billion. Clearly, someone is investing in the future.

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The Institute has one of every kind of current moldmaking machine in-house and toolmaking students learn them all. For every program short of the bachelor's degree, the student spends more time in OJT in a working tool shop than in the classroom setting.

Intensive Training
IT Sligo’s Technology-Moldmaking National Certificate course is another avenue for those aspiring to be tool- or moldmakers. Lasting 18 months, the course is intense and applicants with good academic records must take an aptitude test and be interviewed.

The initial stage of the course is in two parts. The first covers the basics of moldmaking technology, CAD/engineering drawing, computing, communications, and mathematics. The second part goes into greater depth on molds and adds instruction in CAD/CAM, CNC machining, industrial studies, and engineering science. The student is then placed in a work environment for nearly six months.

The final stage of the program covers mold assembly. The student learns mold design and 3-D CAD, in addition to deepening his or her knowledge of CNC machining, CAM, and math. When in school, the student spends 33 hr/week in training.

According to Michael Casserly, who heads the Engineering Technology department, the initial training covers mold-, tool-, and fixture making. The 14 or 15 students in each rotation thus gain broad exposure and can see which area interests them most. IT Sligo’s facilities have all the current machines—EDM, HSM, wire erosion, CNC grinding, and so forth—and the student learns them all.

Both Casserly and Owen O’Donnell, head of moldmaking education, stress that the students first learn how to work with manually controlled machines so later they will understand what the CNC programs are doing. When they finish the course, they are able to program CNC machines off- or online and are comfortable in any area of a moldmaking operation.

Anticipating Industry Needs
The FÁS and educational centers like IT Sligo work hard to stay ahead of industry’s training needs. The 100 percent placement rate of the graduates is evidence of the success of this endeavor. The Institute is providing the people companies want, and that does not happen by chance. The Institute determines needs and sets priorities by conferring regularly with the industry leaders who will need skilled workers in the near future. Beyond that, Casserly notes there is an emphasis on “fit-ability.” By that, he means that the graduate will fit comfortably in a normal work environment.

 LOOKING FOR TALENT?

IT Sligo provides thorough and practical training of young toolmakers, tool designers, and product designers and is interested in cooperating with U.S. companies and educational institutions. For more information, contact Brendan McCormack, head of the School of Engineering.

Brendan McCormack, head of the School of Engineering at IT Sligo, says the skills training of the apprenticeship program can lead to an employment destination for a student, or it can be a stepping stone to further advancement in tool and product design. That, he says, is the area where industry’s needs and demands are growing fastest. Both McCormack and Casserly say the demand for tool and product designers is growing as OEM and manufacturing companies realize that creativity and brain power are what make them more efficient producers and tougher competitors in their respective marketplaces.

McCormack opens IT Sligo’s course catalog to reveal the different ways in which those with talent and desire can move forward. In the mechanical engineering area, there are certificate programs (first level) in mechanical engineering, computer-aided precision engineering, and moldmaking. On the next level, the National Diploma can be achieved with a two-year program in either tool design engineering or industrial automation engineering. On the degree level, investing another two years can equip a student with a bachelor’s degree in product design or quality management.

Practical Education
More than half the time spent by a student in the National Diploma program in tool design is done in an industrial placement—OJT. Even the degree program features an industrial placement period of almost five months. As in the apprenticeship program, OJT is followed by school time that allows students to learn more about operations and technologies they have already seen in action and probably worked on. A telling sign of how rigorous these programs are is that the OJT periods are fully graded. Students in the diploma program maintain a work journal that is checked and graded by the employer and IT Sligo.

The teaching staff at the school is also augmented by active working professionals who teach their varying specialties, be it CAD, tool design, materials selection, or product design on a part-time basis.

Though Irish moldmaking, molding, and contract manufacturing has grown rapidly, it has not gone unaffected by the recent poor economy. Ireland is also dealing with the global forces that take work to countries with low labor costs. However, creative design and engineering are still on the upswing in the Emerald Isle, and IT Sligo is keeping a sharp eye on that for the future.

Contact information
Institute of Technology Sligo
Ballinode, Sligo, Ireland
Brendan McCormack; +353 (71) 55220
[email protected]

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