Chris Foster oversees the massive 1,000-ton press as it stamps out heavy parts. (Chris Linden photo)

Tool & Die: The Secret to Creating Almost Anything

Tool and die makers produce parts used in most every kind of industry. Step inside Rockford Toolcraft and learn how Rockford’s manufacturing prowess supplies some of the country’s most recognizable brands.

Mike Foster oversees the massive 1,000-ton press as it stamps out heavy parts. (Chris Linden photo)
Mike Foster oversees the massive 1,000-ton press as it stamps out heavy parts. (Chris Linden photo)

Looking around his Rockford office, Tom Busse has an easy time pointing out objects that have been stamped and bent from sheet metal. His keys, the hinges on his door, even parts of the chair he’s sitting on. He looks out the window.
“The car you drove up in – 75 percent of that came out of a stamping die,” he says. “Under that hood are are hundreds of stampings welded together. They’re everywhere – washer, dryer, microwave, stove, you name it, you’ve probably used something stamped.”
Busse has spent his entire working life in the tool and die business at Rockford Toolcraft, 766 Research Pkwy. in Rockford, the company founded by his father, Jerry, in 1976. Now company president, Tom leads a manufacturer whose work plays an integral role in many familiar products. From just a sheet of metal, this company can build a shredder ring for a garbage disposal, radiators and oil pans for semi trucks, hay balers and brackets for tractors and combines, even rear covers for skid loaders.
Often referred to as “job shops,” tool and die companies play a crucial role in Rockford’s economy, where nearly one-fifth of all jobs involve manufacturing. Employing both skilled and unskilled labor, our local job shops cover a wide range of capabilities, and their proximity to other manufacturers here is a major selling point.
The technologies and employee skills requirements behind tool and die making have changed dramatically over the past few decades, but Rockford is still a valuable competitor.

What is Tool & Die?

The ultimate product of tool and die is stamping, which shapes and bends sheet metal through a series of punches. The dies inside – one convex male die and one concave female die – stamp, punch and fold the metal into a recognizable part. Tooling is the process of fine-tuning the dies.
Creating a door hinge, for example, might take three steps to punch some holes and fold the edge. Creating the clutch gear of a semi truck may require four or more steps, each of which successively punches the inner holes and the outer gears. There is no universal die, so every part has its own unique sequence.
Die making begins with skilled designers, who draft the shape and sequence of the dies using 3-D computer-aided drafting – a big improvement from the laborious handmade process used just a few years ago.
“We’ve got seven die designers who use software to design and then simulate the die, so we can see how the metal will bend, and whether it springs back, or cracks or wrinkles,” explains Busse. “We can then change the design until we get the part to work in the virtual world, and then we know it’ll work. In the old days, we would use our educated guess and rely on the die maker to do the rest.”
Die makers today input the designer’s work into computerized milling machines that will shape the individual components of each die. The final dies look like incredibly complex assemblies of little parts that will help to stamp and form. “The die maker assembles these components, loads them into the presses, and then debugs it in the press,” says Busse.
During the first test runs, the quality department compares samples against the customer’s drawings, using 3-D scanners and computerized equipment to ensure accuracy.
The fun really begins once the presses roll. Rockford Toolcraft maintains about 60 stamping presses, some of which are smaller, hand-fed machines, ideal for creating simple parts. But most of these presses are fed automatically from massive steel coils. Each day, Rockford Toolcraft’s two facilities, both located within a few blocks of each other, receive about 15 trucks of steel, amounting to nearly 75,000 tons of steel each year.
The massive presses rumble thunderously at Rockford Toolcraft’s Plant 1. The 1,000-ton presses are stamping out heavy door hinges, while a team of operators manage the machines and inspect the parts that thump into the baskets below.
Over in Plant 2, the Brutus press can exert 4,400 tons of pressure, while three laser machines can cut small batches or more complicated parts.
“Our volumes here are about 5,000 pieces a year on the low side, up to about five million,” says Busse. “We love the higher-volume parts, because you can leave the dies in the press longer, and run it faster. There’s a lot of time spent on changing out the dies, so the longer we can leave them in, the better.”
Things have a tendency to break here, whether it’s equipment or the dies. It’s up to tool-and-die and machine maintenance crews to keep things running.
“The dies get dull, and they need to be sharpened if they’re cutting, or, if they’re forming, they may need to be polished,” says Busse. “There are times when a part coming out of the press will no longer satisfy the blueprints, so we have to do some adjusting while the die is in the press.”

Changing Times

Rockford Toolcraft began as a one-man operation in 1976, when Jerry Busse started making stamping dies for local manufacturers’ own presses. A decade later, he had a team of 15, and the team just kept growing as he launched an in-house stamping division.
“We had a pretty good reputation as a tool and die shop, but didn’t have any reputation as a metal stamper,” says the younger Busse, who started at his father’s company at age 14. “We started with the jobs we could bid really cheaply, and then we finally landed on some jobs from major truck manufacturers. That gave my father the confidence to buy some bigger presses and pursue contracts for larger parts. That vision almost 30 years ago put us in a great position to be less susceptible to foreign competition.”
For nearly three decades, the company experienced continuous growth. Its main plant has expanded 15 times; its second plant, built in 2001, has expanded four times. Today, the stamping division employs about 300 people, while the tool and die department employs 75.
Technology has revolutionized the industry over the past few decades. When Rockford Toolcraft opened shop, computer-controlled machines played a small or nonexistent role in the process.
“Less than 25 years ago, the die maker would make every part of the die himself,” says Tom Busse. “He would get the product drawings, the designer’s drawings, and the die steel, and then he would start making the die in manual machines – milling machines, lathes, drill presses, grinders. He would create it, mount it in the press, and then debug it, because few of them ever worked properly the first time.”
Now, most of that work is done digitally by a skilled designer. Computer-controlled machinery, such as CNC millers and wire EDMs, have reduced the amount of time needed to make a die.
Although these tools have increased efficiencies and quality, they’ve also benefitted foreign competition, which can operate the same machines at a lower price.
“The saying now is that you either have to be unique or cheap,” says Busse. “We don’t want to be cheap. We have good wages here, we have good benefits, we pay taxes and follow the rules of OSHA and the EPA. We can’t be cheap, so we have to be unique.”
Rockford Toolcraft has found its competitive edge by providing parts that aren’t affordably produced overseas, and by adding value through innovative stamping techniques.
“The little bitty parts that you can hold in your hand are more susceptible to being mass-produced overseas, when companies can ship a million of those pieces in a small box,” says Busse. “Some of our parts weigh 150 pounds each – those don’t ship well, and they’re a lower volume, anyway. So, when the material is two-thirds to three-quarters of your cost, there’s not much cost advantage to having this part made overseas.”

Ready Workforce

Thanks to Rockford’s manufacturing heritage, it’s relatively easy to come by workers with at least some background, says Busse.
Around the Rockford area, between 400 and 600 men and women are employed as tool and die makers, according to state and federal labor data. They’re often supported by CNC operators and press workers who total about 600 in the Rockford area.
“If you did a survey of our employees, especially those doing the tool and die work, most of them have a father, uncle, cousin, someone who has worked in the trade or manufacturing in general,” says Busse, the third generation of his family in the industry. “When I was a kid growing up, I thought everyone’s dad worked in a shop, because the dads of all the friends I grew up with worked in a shop, too.”
Most of Rockford Toolcraft’s jobs are related to stamping – the press operators and those who support them, such as materials handlers, product inspectors, maintenance crews, shippers and purchasers. The smaller tool and die department includes die makers, designers and estimators.
The stamping jobs begin as entry-level positions, but workers who show aptitude and a willingness to learn often are promoted through the ranks. At minimum, these employees need a high school education and an understanding of basic math, communication and measurement.
“Whether you’re running a machine or working in maintenance, you’re measuring things with a tape measure, a scale, a micrometer, or a dialed caliper,” says Busse. “You name it, you’re using measuring tools, and if you struggle with that, it’s very tough to do your job.”
The skilled die builders and designers must undergo an extensive apprenticeship, which includes some 10,000 hours of on-the-job work plus four years of classes. Rockford Toolcraft hosts apprentices through Rock Valley College.
Jobs at Rockford Toolcraft require some long days – 10-hour day shifts and 12-hour night shifts – but they come with perks, such as three-day weekends and bonus pay for a Saturday shift.
“We pay overtime after eight hours, so the night shift gets a 50-hour paycheck, but there’s 16 hours of time-and-a-half in there,” says Busse. “We also have a night bonus, to attract people to that shift. Some request it because it fits their lifestyle, but others do it for the extra income.”

The Rockford Advantage

Rockford has plenty of advantages for this family-owned company. One is the pool of unskilled laborers who can learn on the job. Another is proximity to some of the company’s most important customers. That’s also a strategic advantage over foreign competitors.
“When there’s a change in parts or a quality problem, it’s much easier to deal with a local supplier than someone who’s 4,000 miles away,” says Busse. “We’ve been blessed in the Midwest to be close to agricultural manufacturers and other customers making their products in the Midwest.”
Rockford’s manufacturing talent also provides a helpful network of suppliers, from steel companies and larger machine shops to industrial supply companies and metalworkers.
“Say a big motor goes out on our press today,” says Busse. “We can’t get it down, so we need a rigging company. We’ve got one right across the street. If I were out in rural Nebraska or in central Mexico, it might take me a month to get something like that. I use our location as a selling point with potential customers.”
Busse’s company is still family-owned, like many other tool-and-die companies in the region. That limited ownership allows Busse and his father, who’s semi-retired, to make decisions quickly, and invest in projects that haven’t yet earned contracts. This is a capital-intense industry, where profit margins are thin, so it’s important to be ahead of the game.
“It was my dad who had the fortitude to go into business and reinvest everything he made into this company, rather than living large,” says Busse. “He didn’t spend a lot of money on toys, in the early days. He got a kick out of buying a new punch press or a milling machine, not a fancy car. We’re benefitting from that philosophy today.”

Keeping it Local

Rockford isn’t perfect, says Busse, but it has enough of the right elements he needs for success. Looking at the range of products that Rockford Toolcraft and other local tool and die makers can produce, it’s hard to imagine an object that couldn’t come from Rockford.
Busse stops at the conference room door and points at the retractable door hinge overhead.
“This is made down in Princeton,” he says. “We make four or five of these parts on our progressive dies. The products of tool and die are in your everyday life, but you don’t really pay much attention to them.”
Bet you will now.