European Tool & Mould Making Magazine (ETMM) interviewed ISTMA President Dave Tilstone, to get his assessment of the current climate in the US tool and mould making market, and summarise ISTMA activity during his presidency.
How do you feel US tool, die and mould makers are faring in the current market climate?
I recently spoke to our Istma members and some of the suppliers that provide products to the tooling people, and in general they continue to be busy. But a lot of the major automotive programs that drive much of their activity have not released the tooling orders, even though the new platforms for new cars scheduled in 2018 have not changed. So there is more concern about meeting the delivery requirements rather than any cancelling of those programs. Companies involved in supplying the medical sector, primarily the moulding people, are very, very busy. Procedures involving what I would call minimal invasive surgery are using more and more disposable plastic components like forceps, which are stamped and then machined, and suppliers here seem to be doing quite well.
Last year you highlighted the problems tooling companies face in finding specialised workers and getting young people into the industry, any progress there?
You know it is a marathon not a sprint with this, because one of the issues we have in general throughout the world and specifically in the US, is that manufacturing is not sexy in the minds of the general public. Most people still view manufacturing as dull, dirty and dangerous when in fact it is not the case, so attracting younger people to the industry is really the challenge given that many of the baby boomers as we call them are going to be retiring soon. We continue to promote young people into the industry. I was just at a robotics competition last week where 1200 young people took part and that is obviously a great move forward, because many of our members sponsored the teams. And that typically leads to students and the parents going to visit those companies where they can see that manufacturing is high tech, it is a worthwhile career, and it does pay well.
Is there any support from government or academia which has helped with recruitment to the manufacturing sector?
I just got back from Washington DC, and the US [government] budget does include a $90m appropriation for apprenticeship programs. Now that budget has been approved it needs to be appropriated to the different schools throughout the US. That is a big deal for us, not so much due to the magnitude of the sum being offered but more because the government recognises that they need to fund the schools for apprenticeships [in manufacturing]. In fact, there are already moves to increase the funding to $100m or a bit more. The other thing is the Perkins Bill which issues Pell grants to help students finance their education in apprenticeship programs and we believe that is going to be approved by July this year.
Gardner Research has indicated weak US tooling machinery exports and increasing volumes of imports due to the strength of the dollar and other factors, what is your perspective?
I was talking to a seller that competes primarily with Germany and they won the contract for the tooling but the main reason that they won it was not so much due of the tooling price but because they were expected to produce small lot sizes on-demand and they were capable of doing that. So they build the tooling, and provide small component sizes compared to what they would in say the automotive sector. That company faced a lot of competition from Europe, where products are very competitive due to the US dollar strengthening or the Euro weakening, whichever way you want to look at it. The yen has settled down, I think 108 to the dollar compared to 80 not too long ago, but the real competition to the US does not come from Japan it really comes from China or Europe depending on how sophisticated the tooling is.
What changes has Istma implemented during your presidency?
We implemented a new strategic plan to do a couple of things: one to make it more attractive for members to join Istma because of the value we can provide to them through knowledge and networking opportunities. Coupled with that we wanted to have Asia, and specifically Japan and likewise China, come back to Istma because tool, die and mould makers there have such an influence in the rest of the world. Those two are the giants of the industry and we have been successful in speaking with them and getting them to participate in Istma events. We believe they will move forward by becoming Istma members in the short term.
Are the Brics countries involved, too?
We have put together a strategic focus for the Brics countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), partly funded by the South African government, to help promote the industry and further co-operation among the Brics countries specifically. They are planning a meeting n June to discuss tooling in those countries. Unfortunately Brazil is having all sorts of economic issues, but we [Istma] still have a very, very active group down there and India remains a big deal. Russia is somewhat of a challenge because the Russian economy has been suffering for a long time and there is not one association, but more of a group of key companies that we are working with. However, South Africa has done wonderful things with their tooling group: educating young people through targeted apprenticeship programs; attracting new manufacturers to the country; and expanding relationships with existing manufacturers, such as Toyota, BMW and Mercedes, primarily because they have a core group of highly trained individuals in the workplace.
Which new technologies do you think are having most impact on the industry?
Additive manufacturing (AM) certainly has its place although I don't think from a tooling standpoint that it is going to replace traditional machining per se. The interesting play with 3D printing is that you can print sand cores to help facilitate the turnaround on moulds and that would typically be done through patterns. I think it will gain traction but I don't think it is going to herald too much change or impact. The technology that is already impacting tooling is the Internet of Things (IoT) – the use sensors on machines which are able to control not only surface quality but also dimensioning, and which monitor machines for vibration to operators a better idea of whether they are working correctly. Then I also see lots of sensors going into the tooling itself, so that you can keep a closer eye on stamping, pressing and other processes than was possible previously.
Are there any companies you are aware of that have already adopted IoT?
I think there are some early IoT adopters as far as shop floor and machine information is concerned - Industry 4.0 is very similar to what we are talking about. But I really believe that the machine intelligence is going to improve dramatically as the cost of the sensors drops. People are also going to become very creative. They are going to identify metrics relating to wear, vibration and part quality that we have not seen yet but that is much further down the road compared to machine intelligence and information we can glean from the shop floor.