International Perspective: A Broader View of Moldmaking

Our new European correspondent hopes to give readers a look at what's happening in mold manufacturing outside the United States.

What methods do American mold builders employ to remain competitive? Why do German moldmakers increasingly install automation technology? How do Portuguese mold shops cooperate to manufacture quality products exported to nearly every relevant country in the world? Answering these and many other questions by sharing the strategies, success stories and trends of other countries’ mold manufacturing industries, is the main purpose of this new monthly column. We want to give MoldMaking Technology readers a look at what is happening outside of North America, because, despite globalization and globally available technology and equipment, every country has its own unique way of doing things and, more importantly, making things.

My experience and passion for covering manufacturing has prepared me well for this new journalistic endeavor, and I am excited to be a part of the MMT team as its European correspondent. I started covering the manufacturing industry as an editor with Germany’s leading industrial magazine, MM Maschinenmarkt, after completing my studies in linguistics and mechanical engineering in 2005. Two years later, I set out on an adventure on the other side of the world and became editor-in-chief of Australian Manufacturing Technology magazine, which is published by the Australian Manufacturing Technology Institute Limited (AMTIL). Being part of a national manufacturing association allowed me to network with Australia’s top players in metal manufacturing as well as small-to-medium-sized manufacturing businesses. I returned to Germany in 2013 and have been editor-in-chief of European Tool and Mould Making (ETMM), published by Vogel Business Media, for the past four years. 

It is from this experience that I would like to share in this column my insights and knowledge of European manufacturing, particularly tool and die manufacturing and moldmaking. I also expect to learn as much as I can about the American way of running a mold shop and making molds. 
Australia’s former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd once famously said he wants to live in a country that “makes things.” People talk about Australia becoming “a nation of burger flippers.” Although a prospering service sector is important for a country’s economy, the world’s best-performing economies tend to have innovative and sophisticated manufacturing sectors. In contrast, Australia has relied too much on the mining boom and has squandered a unique chance to foster competitive industries (now even completely closing down its car industry).

Sadly, similar to in the United States, manufacturing jobs, especially blue-collar ones, have suffered enormous, undeserved social stigma for decades. Now, with technical professions projected to face serious shortfalls, don’t be surprised if the worker in the factory uniform is making more money than those wearing other types of uniforms. And this is not only true in the U.S. and Australia. The skills gap, a lack of people choosing a manufacturing career, is a problem even in Germany, Sweden and Switzerland, which have recovered strongly from the global financial crisis and arguably have the most competitive manufacturing sectors.

As new technology continues to transform mold manufacturing, more and more businesses are struggling to find workers with the skills to man these new machines and manage these new processes. However, many companies that I have visited over the last couple of years in Europe, and especially in Germany, have managed to bridge the skills gap by tackling the problem with a two-fold strategy: investing in automation, and training and “raising” their own staff. 

The “German model” or European-style apprenticeships are buzzwords America has been discussing in recent years as solutions to improve the way it teaches people a trade or to ease unemployment. The Obama administration has been promoting apprenticeships over the last several years as a way to bridge the skills gap. But what exactly is the German model? What’s the secret behind our apprenticeship system, which is and always has been extremely popular? Around 60 percent of German students decide to go the apprenticeship path after school instead of to colleges or universities.

At the heart of our apprenticeships are so-called “dual training.” Trainees split their days between classroom instruction at a vocational school and on-the-job time at a company. Theories they learn about in class are reinforced by practice at work. Trainees are paid for their time, including their time in class. The arrangements last for two to four years, depending on the manufacturing sector.
Most importantly, trainees also learn work habits and responsibility, and, if all goes well, absorb the company’s culture. Both trainee and employer usually hope the apprenticeship will lead to a permanent job, creating a crucial talent pool for any company, especially smaller tool and mold shops located in rather remote areas that are not very attractive to young people, who tend to want to move toward the big cities.

I have asked many moldmakers in Germany how they manage to find people in the hilly rural area of Swabia, for example, which is a hot-spot for Germany’s manufacturing and moldmaking industries. Bosch, Mercedes and other well-known companies are all located here, and this doesn’t make it easier for the smaller companies to find skilled staff. The answer has always been the same: by training their own people, treating them well (almost as family members) and hoping they will stay after their training is completed. And this strategy has worked.

For example, Deckerform, a moldmaker in Aichach, created what it calls a “think tank:” a separate, modern building of a truly innovative design in which products and molds are developed and optimized using finite element methods and simulation software. It officially opened in 2015 and offers an atmosphere that fosters innovation and ideas among workers, including patios and staircases around the building that invite workers to wander outside to clear their heads or take a break. It is also completely self-sufficient in terms of energy supply. 

It’s no surprise that company owner Franz Tschacha considers the tool- and moldmaking company’s key to success “happy employees working in an environment and culture that encourages innovation.” He spends as much as $100,000 annually for staff development and training not only related to technical skills but also to self-development. Also, a quarter of the company’s revenue is distributed among all employees. 

Of course all that glitters is not gold. There still are many employers struggling to find motivated apprentices or staff. And globalization has brought the bachelor’s degree, virtually unheard of until recently, and with it a new, broader interest in attending college. There is little evidence that the growth in these academic degrees is undermining apprenticeship programs, however. Both settings share a common educational purpose: prepare people for jobs.

If you have certain areas or topics that you’d like me to discuss in future columns, please contact me at bschluz@gardnerweb.com. I am looking forward to hearing from you and bringing you a little international perspective.

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