Die Tech Think 'Virtual' Tool Die

September 16, 2005
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WYOMING — First, there are a few things that Die Tech Services isn’t. It isn’t a temp agency. Even though its core competency is temporary employment, it is no more a temp agency than, say, a construction management firm. Nor is Die Tech an actual tool and die shop. And it isn’t out to take other people’s jobs.

Die Tech could be described as a full-service tool and die shop without the shop. The 3-year-old contracting firm quite possibly represents the next generation of tool and die.

“A lot of guys want to be in one spot; they want to wake up Monday morning and know where they’re going,” said founder and President James Warner. “That’s nice, but everything is changing. We’ve realized that it’s up and down, especially in West Michigan. It’s up right now, but …”

Perhaps more than any other manufacturing segment, tool and die has accustomed itself to layoffs. It is, quite literally, a business of feasts and famines.

“When a shop calls someone in to hire them, the first thing you hear is, ‘How long are you going to need me?’” Warner said. “Then I’m surprised when guys get laid off and sit and wait for them to call back — no health insurance, no income. We put them to work.”

In his 22 years as a journeyman die maker, Warner has been laid off five times. His last employer, Autodie International, laid him off three times, including the “big one” in 2002, after a decade on the job.

In the year leading up to that fateful exit, Autodie had begun contracting out its journeymen across the country. Warner found himself working across the Midwest and the South, from Detroit to Kentucky and Tennessee. Other employees were sent all the way to Mexico. Autodie had figured out that when it’s slow in West Michigan, it might be booming in Georgia. And, through much of the South — where the new domestics have settled — there is virtually no tool and die experience.

When the sweeping, post 9/11 layoffs came in 2002, Warner and fellow pink-slipper Casey Darby, Die Tech vice president, decided to try their hand at the contracting field. A month after they incorporated, the duo landed work at a die shop in Toledo, Ohio. They spent 10 months there and began rotating their out-of-work colleagues through the project.

“At first, it’s really different when you take off to go out of town,” Warner said. “Some guys really like it. One guy doesn’t like to work in the summer — he has a boat on the lake — and during wintertime we send him down south.”

Warner tries to bring the workers home once a month, rotating a pair each week.

In the second year, the founders worked less in the shops and more in the office, recruiting and hiring journeymen and bringing in new customers. The company recently moved from a Plainfield Avenue office to a new location in Wyoming.

Gordon Fletcher, a 21-year journeyman and Autodie alum, has been with Die Tech since the beginning.

“I don’t think it’s for everybody,” he said of the travel. “But I like that it’s a different atmosphere every time; it’s not the same old grind and the same old people. I’m learning something new every day, and I’m going to cities I never thought I’d go to in my life.”

This week, Fletcher is finishing up a project in Grand Rapids, where he has been on site for about a month. Before that, he was in Greenville, S.C., for a three-month stint.

Today, Die Tech has a stable of over 30 journeymen for its contracting business, all with at least 10 years experience, and has added placement and training services. It has relocated dozens of West Michigan journeymen to fill permanent needs in other parts of the Midwest and South.

“Right off the bat, there has always been demand,” Warner said. “They want people to move south — there is a shortage of skilled labor there. The South is so far behind. They’re trying to figure out ways to train die makers because they don’t have an educational base.”

Warner visited a community college in Alabama this past spring at the behest of Hyundai engineers. The school and automaker wanted help establishing a training program, so Warner directed them to Grand Rapids Community College. The Alabama college eventually recruited an instructor from elsewhere in Michigan to launch an apprenticeship program.

In addition to displaced journeymen, Die Tech is training new and potential journeymen for placement in West Michigan and elsewhere. This fall the firm launched its own program through GRCC. Warner is considering building a training area in the back of the office.

Warner said the firm is also working with companies on training. Some customers don’t have Class A experience, for example, so Die Tech will send journeymen with those skill sets to perform the work and teach the skills.

Other customers are contracting solely for the purpose of program launches, sending Die Tech to the site and keeping die makers in the shop.

“When a customer calls us up, we ask them specifically what they are looking for,” Warner said. “And we fill that need. This is a very hard skill. Guys have 10 years of experience — journeyman die makers. You can’t just take someone off the street and let them run with it.”

He said he would like to figure out ways to connect West Michigan to Die Tech’s other markets.

“Mercedes, Honda, all these guys are down there fighting for die makers, and a lot of it is getting built overseas,” he said. “People ask where Grand Rapids is. And I have to ask them where they get their dies built. I’ve got an attachment I send out with the names of a bunch of die shops, to give them the opportunity to send out bids.

“Had some customers here from Korea. (I) told them they’d be surprised — there is so much talent here, but no one realizes it. I keep saying they should go to West Michigan.”    

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