In a recent Q&A, Ray Merritt — a toolmaker and moldmaker with over 50 years of experience — sat down to discuss what he does for The Rodon Group, how times have changed since he started out in the business of toolmaking and mold making, and what the industry can expect going forward.
How long have you been at Rodon?
Just over 50 years. I initially started out doing maintenance, mixing colors, packing, and most everything else. They started numbering employees after I started here, beginning at number 101. My number is 108, so you can tell I’ve been here a while!
What does your job as a toolmaker involve?
We build molds, so “toolmaker/moldmaker” might be a more accurate title. At this moment, I specialize in electrical discharge machining (EDM), which makes up most of my work. I’m still involved in grinding, but it’s mostly grinding graphite electrodes.
What does a typical day look like for you?
It takes a while to set up the machines, plan the designs of the electrodes and calculate how many we need, order the graphite material, and get the electrodes mounted and ready for the CNC department to machine the electrodes. It’s not so much about “the day” as a whole as it is about the entire process of each job.
I also keep tabs on the computer for updates on our job list. I look up files on the computer to see what’s coming down the line, and I start planning for those jobs. We could be working on five or six jobs at any given time.
How has toolmaking changed since you started at Rodon? How has the technology changed?
It’s night and day. Nowadays, with the CNC milling machines, you can buy all kinds of tooling to use for cutting. In the old days, we’d make a form tool, heat treat it, sharpen it up, and machine metal with it. Now, you can use the CNC machine, which can machine all kinds of shapes in record time. And a lot of times, the finishes are good enough as they are, and they don’t even require EDM.
We didn’t have EDM machines when I first started here, but eventually we got one and used that to make molds for handlebar grips for bicycles. Of course, that first EDM machine of ours was very archaic by today’s standards. It didn’t run overnight, but we made it work. We built a lot of tooling that required a lot of handwork for proper shaping. Nowadays, you just program the CNC machine, and you’ve got the shapes. We had old milling machines, all manual, so everything was drilled out by hand. You couldn’t do it like that now. The accuracy and the range of what we can do now is unbelievable.
How has this affected your job?
The process is a lot quicker. The manual aspect is essentially gone, but every process still requires a lot of thought as we go into each job.
On average, how long does it take to create a new tool? What factors determine the length of each job?
That depends entirely on how complex the mold is. A very, very simple mold can be done in as little as a week, but more difficult jobs could take as long as a couple of months. Rarely do jobs take longer than four months.
What do you do to maintain an existing tool?
We have some tools we run for specific amounts of time, and if it’s a long run, we have people who clean the inside of the molds and make sure everything is still in optimal working order. In between jobs, they’re checking the tool and cleaning it.
When a tool is finished running a job, it will be brought in and taken apart, cleaned, and checked before it’s put back on our racks. If it needs any work, we repair the tool as well. A lot of times when we make changes in the parts, we’ll either burn or mill out a section where customers want to make the change and insert another plug to reburn it and alter it as needed.
There is a huge shortage of skilled toolmakers today. What types of skills are needed to become a toolmaker, and how can today’s youth prepare for a career in toolmaking?
There used to be a lot of manual math problem solving involved, but it’s not like that anymore. Now, computers are used to figure out any mathematical aspects quickly. You still occasionally need a calculator to do a little adding and subtracting. Today’s technology makes things more accessible, and when you call up the files, you can easily measure angles, distances, and everything else.
Most kids are pretty tech-savvy nowadays, and we have some tech schools around here that offer courses on toolmaking. We’ve been providing opportunities to some of their students, and that’s been a great experience for them and for us as well.
We also had an apprenticeship program years ago. But in the industrial world, a lot of apprenticeship programs died out because so many companies used to just handle one type of work — just grinding, for instance. In our area, though, in Pennsylvania, officials are working on a program that will offer multifaceted apprenticeships in a range of areas.
The Rodon Group is proud to offer industry-leading custom plastic injection molding services for various industries and applications, from food and beverage to medical and pharmaceutical. Our skilled team can provide mold design, mold building, and high-volume parts manufacturing services to meet clients’ exact needs.
Curious to learn more about moldmaking and toolmaking? Contact the team today; we’re on hand to answer any questions you may have.