Retrotechtacular: The Tools And Dies That Made Mass Production Possible

Here at Hackaday we’re suckers for vintage promotional movies, and we’ve brought you quite a few over the years. Their boundless optimism and confidence in whatever product they are advancing is infectious, even though from time to time with hindsight we know that to have been misplaced.

For once though the subject of today’s film isn’t something problematic, instead it’s a thing we still rely on today. Precision manufacturing of almost anything still relies on precision tooling, and the National Tool and Die Manufacturers Association is on hand in the video from 1953 below the break to remind us of the importance of their work.

The products on show all belie the era in which the film was made: a metal desk fan, CRT parts for TVs, car body parts, a flight of what we tentatively identify as Lockheed P-80 Shooting Stars, and a Patton tank. Perhaps for the Hackaday reader the interest increases though when we see the training of an apprentice toolmaker, a young man who is being trained to the highest standards in the use of machine tools. It’s a complaint we’ve heard from some of our industry contacts that it’s rare now to find skills at this level, but we’d be interested to hear views in the comments on the veracity of that claim, or whether in a world of CAD and CNC such a level of skill is still necessary. Either way we’re sure that the insistence on metrology would be just as familiar in a modern machine shop.

A quick web search finds that the National Tool and Die Manufacturers Association no longer exists, instead the search engine recommends the National Tooling And Machining Association. We’re not sure whether this is a successor organisation or a different one, but it definitely represents the same constituency. When the film was made, America was at the peak of its post-war boom, and the apprentice would no doubt have gone on to a successful and pretty lucrative career. We hope his present-day equivalent is as valued.

If you’re of a mind for more industrial process, can we direct you at die casting?

14 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: The Tools And Dies That Made Mass Production Possible

  1. In biology there are many theories which are attributed to the evolution of humans. Fire for cooking food and increased protein leading to more intelligent brains, etc etc. I add another one to the mix, tools. I guess its just a more optimistic version of “war is driving our evolution”

    They let our ancestors do things which weren’t possible without the specific tools, and progressed us.

    A tool is an amazing thing if you think about it since it requires the designer to not only know how to design and manufacture the tool but also understand everything about the intended use case and purpose of the tool that he wishes to create.

    Humanity will slow its progress when we stop making tools.

    Thank you for coming to my TED talk and listening to my ramblings!

    1. It’s a scroll saw, they still work like this today, google it and see them in all of their ‘unsafe’ glory… Also, there was a disclaimer at the start of the video where machines had safety kit removed for the purposes of the film, so that the watching public can see these machines working.

      1. Oh I didn’t see the disclaimer, thanks. It was the proximity of the reciprocating mechanism to the operator’s head that caught my eye. Not literally of course, tho it might have been for him!

    2. I think that’s a die filing machine, I worked on them, small and large. After smacking your head a couple of times you learn not to get close. I also worked on a keller copy mill (shown) it had geared electric motors on each axis, that made interesting incremental sounds as they sped up and down.

  2. I personally know 2 Mold/toolmakers very well. Can confirm that their skills are above and beyond the normal (even experienced) machinists I encounter. These are the guys who the typical day-day machinist looks up to. Their work is very clean and impressive.
    One of them made molds that were multicavity with several automation steps to clamp them. He said that they took months to do while working 40hr weeks.

    They spend a lot of time on jigs/setup of the machine. Planning everything beforehand (one guy called it “couch machining”) takes a massive amount of thinking time which requires focus.
    If you can get to know one on a day to day basis…they are really interesting to watch work. Both of the 2 I know are guys who can pretty much fix anything. Very mechanically inclined.

    Like most other top of their field people though…they can be a bit difficult to work with (probably why people have difficulty finding them). They are almost always super busy…and often don’t have time to talk. Plus, once you hit that level you spend a lot of time telling people no…since people can/will waste a massive amount of time with quotes. I have even been told that some charge $50 just to talk to them (this was back when $50 meant something).
    Also, they are often unlisted. One guy was telling a story about yelling at his business partner for putting their company in the yellow pages. Since if you have “machining” listed…you get calls all day from people trying to get you to turn rotors or grind heads.

    My advice for anyone who is looking for any level of metal worker is to contact your local metal supply shop and/or local machining tech programs and ask. That is the best way to find out what is available local and also might give you a foot in the door. Just remember…don’t waste their time. They hate that.

    1. And nowadays, people who monitor CNC machines (in industry) are little more than operators. When they experience problems, they call on a machinist.

      1. They call them “button pushers”. All they do is put in a precut stock to a vice and hit go.

        People who actually know CAM are called “programmers”

        If you actually know how to setup/use a mill you are a “machinist”

        Building/fixing mills are “millwrights”

        At least from my understanding and experience around machine shops.

        All of them serve a purpose…need to ask for the correct one for the job. Often there is overlap between. Sometimes one person does all the jobs.

  3. dude!
    we’re just starting the climb to our peak
    -focused people
    -relative freedom
    -large land mass

    you all ain’t even seen what exceptional means

    1953 “When the film was made, America was at the peak of its post-war boom,”

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.