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Precision Metalworkers


The modern machine tool industry came into existence around the beginning of the 19th century. One of the most important early contributors was Eli Whitney, the American inventor and manufacturer who is credited with the first successful use of standardized, interchangeable parts in manufacturing. When Whitney received an order from the U.S. government in 1798 for thousands of muskets, he envisioned a new work method. He realized that he could design machines that would allow unskilled workers to turn out many identical copies of each part in a musket. In carrying out his plan, he invented jigs (tool-guiding patterns) and fixtures (devices that clamp work-pieces in place). They were the first versions of devices that are very important in today's tool and die making.

Another significant invention of the 19th century was the power press, which could be fitted with presswork dies, or stamping dies, to cut and form items out of sheet metal. Today, the fabrication of presswork dies remains an important part of tool and die making. Other significant developments in the field have included methods for die-casting metals and injection-molding materials, such as plastics.

The rapid growth of mass-production techniques in the late 19th century spurred the development of tool and die shops, mostly small, independent contractors, who today employ the majority of precision metalworkers in the United States. Also, as manufacturing industries came to use more kinds of precision tools and dies, the workers who fabricate them have become increasingly specialized. So, even though today's tools and dies make hundreds of thousands of mass-produced parts, they themselves must be custom made by highly skilled crafts workers. Today's tooling shops typically perform a few very sophisticated types of tasks, rather than a broad range of tool making and die making.

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