Craftmanship in the Toolroom

Every toolroom would like to operate with a full complement of journeymen toolmakers; however, true craftsmen are tough to come by. There are steps you can take to train your employees in achieving a higher level of craftsmanship.

The repairman was hard at work installing cores into a steel mold plate. Able to easily install 20 of the 32 cores with hand pressure alone, the 12 remaining bored holes would not allow the repairman an easy start - and the cores would soon pay for their stubbornness. The repairman, in his eleventh hour and painfully aware of the production demands - worked feverously to finish and get the "gators" off his back. He picked up his worn out brass hammer and proceeded to drive the cores into the plate. Crooked - as they were started - the hardened cores scooped steel burrs from the sidewalls of the holes and deposited them at the bottom of the counter bores, waiting to haunt us another day. Unaware or indifferent to the reason why the cores would not start into the holes in the first place, the repairman swung away, feeling justified in the need for speed.

Another repairman had his mold plates standing on the bench in perfect order, but unbraced on the table. Milking the mold for the better part of the day - in an effort to finish it by the end of his shift - he was in high gear. Moving quickly around the bench - jumping air-lines and extension cords as he went - he was headed for the cleaning tank when he lost track of his elbow and it caught the corner of a plate. Before he could even react to the pain, steel plates crashed in a hail of flying tooling, leaving the repairman red-faced and his reputation as a klutz intact. An accident? Yes, and a careless one - one that was deadly on molds and tooling.

These and many other types of maintenance styles and habits are part of the typical mold repair workforce in industry today. Swapping repair stories at maintenance seminars around the country confirms this. Depending upon how lucky you've been in hiring conscientious personnel, hopefully you will only have to deal with a small percentage of careless mistakes usually suffered through haste, inexperience or a lack of focus.

In Search of the Craftsman

What is it that sets skilled craftsmen apart from their peers? What is it that allows them to excel in their respective fields such as tool and die work, cabinetry, jewelry, watch-making or any craft that requires a skillful blend of mechanical intuition and eye and hand coordination?

In mold repair, it begins with the ability to visualize precise - sometimes complex - mechanical motion, and to understand how molds function. Craftsmen will concentrate on the intricacies of feel and read resistance in hand tool feedback. They will tease tooling into position instead of driving it home - and in doing so can determine if the piece encounters a minute bur or piece of grit, impeding reliable performance. They have the ability to gauge by hand a good running fit. They have the discipline to stop and investigate physical red flags and will not apply undue force to tooling to save a few minutes.

Experienced mold repair craftsmen also possess the talent to identify and maintain the integrity of sharp, critical shutoff areas during repairs and to recognize what pins, bushings, interlocks and other important alignment or wear areas need to be addressed. They analyze vent residue and tooling tracks left behind, making improvements in plastic flow and extending mold life. They can create special tools or fixtures that will allow more accurate control with a delicate or troublesome procedure, and have the wisdom to appreciate and respect precision mold construction.

Their tools are symbols of their commitment to the trade and an expression of their skill. This type of craftsman will recognize not only the monetary value of the tool, but also the effort that went into its design and construction. You won't need to ask them to follow the performance of a mold that they have rebuilt new life into - it becomes a part of them.

Without skilled tradesmen to maintain molds in a professional manner in a well-designed shop, nothing else will matter. There is no substitute. Even the finest molds designed and built will quickly fall prey to sloppy workmanship. Mold and product defects will arise that even your best molding magician won't be able to process around, while tooling costs and downtime hours escalate.

Unfortunately, teaching good work habits is not a common practice. Many toolroom supervisors today have little or no hands-on experience in repairing molds, relying solely on the talent of their employees to get the job done. Some are bogged down with other inter-departmental responsibilities which keep them from mastering or teaching the art.

This leaves the vast majority of repair technicians learning the craft through trial by fire.

In a fog of miscommunication between the toolroom and front office personnel, molds continually get overrun and under maintained. And when the mold eventually does go down, absolute panic rules - sometimes flooding the toolroom with mechanically-challenged individuals all wanting an immediate explanation of "just what happened," while the rookie repairman prays that he is not the cause. In a rose-colored world, there is a high degree of camaraderie among your stable of seasoned tool and die makers - the technical need-to-know information about every mold is remembered precisely and shared willingly. There are back-up molds available for all of your products, eliminating the need for frantic repairs. In this perfect world your best guys never take vacations or get sick; they love overtime; all your stainless steel molds contain only a single cavity and you are molding products where flash, grease, burns and sinks are value-added defects.

At the other end of the spectrum, you might have inexperienced repair technicians with tenure - who have trouble focusing under pressure and lack mechanical intuition or pride in workmanship - repairing complicated multi-cavity, close tolerance hot runner tools "just in time." And all the while they are attempting to mold precision products such as electrical, medical or optical parts with zero flash, perfect size, fit and finish. Sometimes that actually happens - hence the term "black art."

The Secret to Success

The secret to developing a workforce of craftsmen lies first in hiring or matching the right kind of personality to the job. This is not necessarily a bonified toolmaker. Dangerously nearing extinction, few of this breed of highly skilled and trusted journeymen even enjoy mold repair since the skills used in the fabrication of tooling are not always utilized in the repair aspect of molds. Consequently, they are more productive and much happier when building versus repairing tools.

The number of skilled machinists recruited to "repair and rebuild" molds who then find themselves spending most of the day bent over solvent tanks scrubbing mold parts - their attitudes eroding equally along with their skills - is surprising. You can solve this problem by utilizing sonic cleaning technology. Properly designed sonic cleaners drastically reduce the amount of time spent on the tedious and laborious task of attempting to hand wash plates and tooling. Nothing is faster or less wearing on tooling.

So when hiring, look for a gadget guy - someone who has developed an interest in mechanics through various avenues of their lives and who enjoy the challenge and satisfaction that hands-on precision work brings them.

Next, educate the repairmen in mold function through seminars, conferences and good old-fashioned on-the-job training. Today's supervisors need to communicate, mediate diverging ideas, teach techniques and motivate employees by challenging their mechanical aptitude and physical abilities to excel. With the "just-in-time" philosophy practiced by many molding companies today, you cannot afford to waste downtime through the antiquated approach of setting a mold on a repairman's bench and requiring them to "just fix it" - hoping that they will have all the information, skills and tools needed for an effective, reliable and timely repair.

Apprentice repairmen need to be taught how to work efficiently on molds by separating their work into stages (i.e., disassembly, troubleshooting, repairing, cleaning and assembly). They need to have detailed troubleshooting and repair guides available that explain specific repair procedures, special tools needed and techniques that must be used during these stages.

Maintenance manuals need to be maintained diligently - preferably by the shop supervisor - and they should be required reading when molds are brought into the toolroom for repairs. The manuals allow the repairman to be brought up to speed quickly on mold defect history and what was done during previous repairs. Popular journal type histories - where mold information is logged into a notebook in a freehand style - are too ambiguous and time-consuming to be useful. They are of little value to mold repairmen who are under the pressure of hectic production schedules. A hurried evaluation only promotes inconsistent mold performance through misdiagnosed mold problems. Consistency in repairs and minimizing mistakes only can be accomplished through a strict adherence to sound, methodical work habits combined with accurate mold histories. Train in technique. Educate in function. Learn from history.

To assess climbing skill levels, you must monitor individual mold performance and how the repairmen utilize downtime hours. You will discover: how often do their molds run at 100 percent efficiency? How often do their molds come back due to forgotten O-rings or tooling, loose bolts or water or if the molds have oil leaks? Are routine cleaning times consistent among your repairmen? Do they replace expensive tooling without first investigating why it wore out or if in fact it really needs replacing? Do they spend too much time in the "ponder position?" Do they display a higher than normal tooling use due to a heavy hand or crude methods? Do they occasionally forget - or are they in too much of a hurry - to properly grease important wear areas? Do they work methodically through repair stages or do their hand tools, manuals and mold tooling lie scattered about in a muck of solvent, degraded resin, oil and water?

On the up side, your top grade craftsman will have acquired the necessary mechanical and mathematical skills, and will have equipped themselves with the required tools, (a combination of machinists and mechanic type tools) to determine tooling preloads at critical shut-offs - through blueprints or physical measurements. They are able to maintain/rebuild mold frames, stack-out tooling and to identify, correct and document the root causes of defects from which your molds suffer. Simply stated, they solve problems. They don't create them through bad habits, which only confuse and complicate the troubleshooting and molding processes.

Examine your own management style. Developing a shop of capable craftsmen does not mean standing over them with a furrowed brow and crossed arms - trying to intimidate someone into better, faster performance. It also doesn't mean staying away from the shop all day and leaving important mold repair decisions to your "best guys" on the floor. You need to be involved. Gather useful information that your repairmen can use and serve as a mediator between the molding floor and the tool room. Study maintenance manuals and discuss product defects or mold issues with the repairmen to be sure that they understand the repair plan. Convert mold performance and downtime data into dollars and use this for justification in acquiring the needed machine and hand tools or time.

Orchestrate repairs matching personalities with mold complexities. Don't settle for quick, unprofessional fixes just to get the mold back into production - and you out the door.

As an added bonus, the process personnel watching this transformation in the toolroom will become more focused when the time comes to run your diligently maintained molds. This in turn strengthens that critical matrix between the toolroom and the molding floor that is necessary to efficiently produce quality parts on time. When this is accomplished, only good things will happen.

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