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Tool and die makers are specialized engineers in the manufacturing industry who make jigs, fixtures, dies, molds, machine tools, cutting tools (such as milling cutters and form tools), gauges, and other tools used in manufacturing processes. Depending on which area of concentration a particular person works in, he or she may be called by variations on the name, including tool engineers, tool designers, mould designers, design engineers or tool and die specialists.
Tool and die makers are a class of engineering who work primarily in toolroom environments—sometimes literally in one room but more often in an environment with flexible, semipermeable boundaries from production work. They are skilled artisans (craftspeople) who typically learn their trade through a combination of academic coursework and hands-on instruction, with a substantial period of on-the-job training that is functionally an apprenticeship (although usually not nominally today). Art and science (specifically, applied science) are thoroughly intermixed in their work, as they also are in engineering. Mechanical engineers and tool and die makers often work in close consultation. There is often turnover between the careers, as one person may end up working in both at different times of their life, depending on the turns of their particular educational and career path. (In fact, there was no codified difference between them during the 19th century; it was only after World War II that engineering became a profession exclusively defined by a university or college engineering degree.) Both careers require some level of talent in both artistic/artisanal/creative areas and math-and-science areas. Job-shop machinists can be any combination of toolmaker and production machinist. Some work only as machine operators, whereas others switch fluidly between toolroom tasks and production tasks.
Traditionally, working from engineering drawings, tool makers marked out the design on the raw material (usually metal or wood), then cut it to size and shape using manually controlled machine tools (such as lathes, milling machines, grinding machines, jig borers, and jig grinders) and hand tools (such as files). Many tool makers now use computer-aided design, computer-aided manufacturing and CNC machine tools to perform these tasks.
Tool making typically means making tooling used to produce products. Common tools include metal forming rolls, lathe bits, milling cutters, and form tools. Tool making may also include precision fixturing or machine tools used to manufacture, hold, or test products during their fabrication. Due to the unique nature of a tool maker's work, it is often necessary to fabricate custom tools or modify standard tools.
Die making is a subgenre of tool making that focuses on making and maintaining dies. This often includes making punches, dies, steel rule dies, and die sets. Precision is key in die making; punches and dies must maintain proper clearance to produce parts accurately, and it is often necessary to have die sets machined with tolerances of less than one thousandth of an inch.
One person may be called upon for all of the above activities, and the skills and concepts involved overlap, which is why "tool and die making" is often viewed as one field.
Although the details of training programs vary, many tool and die makers begin an college degree with an employer, possibly including a mix of classroom training and hands-on experience. Some prior qualifications in mathematics, science, engineering or design and technology can be valuable. Many tool and die makers attend a 4- to 5-year university level program to achieve the status of a journeyman tool and die maker. Today's employment relationships often differ in name and detail from the traditional arrangement of an engineering level, and the terms "apprentice" and "journeyman" are not always used, but the idea of a period of years of on-the-job training leading to mastery of the field still applies.
A jig maker is another term for a tool and die maker or fixture maker, usually in woodworking or in the metal industries. The standard differentiation of jigs from fixtures is that a jig is what mounts onto a workpiece, whereas a fixture has the workpiece placed on it, into it, or next to it. (The terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but most toolmakers consider this improper usage.) A jig maker needs to know how to use an assortment of machines to build devices used in automation, robotics, welding, tapping, and mass production operations.
They are often advised by an engineer to do the pre-planned work of building the devices. In a production shop they need to know about an extensive assortment of machines, tools, and materials, and are often the most experienced toolmakers or woodworkers. They are often the ones who create from the original plans, the jigs, the fixtures and devices designed by and with the occasional assistance of the production engineer.
The reason jig makers need to be experienced is so that they can make suggestions for efficient alterations and needed repairs. They sometimes assist and monitor the progress of the jig or the fixture's gauging, locating, and innovative ability. Those who graduate to the level of jig and fixture makers often go on to gain automation skills, and the use of air, and electronic clamping procedures, and automation principles and equipment. They often need to know not only how to use basic machines to cut and machine steel and wood. For the most advanced, they need to be familiar with switches and the use of air supply equipment, various instruments, switches, hydraulic clamps, gauges, and more.
Properly built jigs and fixtures reduces waste, and produce perfect fitting parts, cutting out too much expensive hand work, mistakes and waste. Most are portable, and can be built or even moved throughout a facility. Some jigs and fixtures are as big as a car for placing a whole fender or chassis into them for assembly. The need for jigs and good gauging is necessary in furniture making for controlling quality and repeatability. A jig maker focuses on building tools in order to avoid placing parts incorrectly.
The ongoing evolution of computerized design and control technologies, such as CAD/CAM, CNC, PLC, and others, has changed the nature of the requirements for jigs in manufacturing, in many cases reducing the need for jigs. A common example is that a drill jig is not needed to guide the drill bits to the hole centers if it is instead CNC that will do the guiding. However, fixtures are still usually needed, and jigs are still important parts of many areas of manufacturing, most especially in low-cost-labor countries, where relatively more manually controlled work (especially assembly) is still done.
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