photo of the plant manager Brad Meulenberg
There is an alarming shortage of young people entering the tool and die industry. Brad Meulenberg, plant manager at GRM Automation in Comstock Park, cites these statistics: 75 percent of toolmakers are over the age of 45; 41 percent are 55 or older.
The tool and die industry will be losing more than forty percent of its current workers within the next ten years, and it takes seven to ten years to fully train a toolmaker. Meulenberg is optimistic about the future of manufacturing, noting, “We will always have manufacturing.” But he adds recruiting young people into the tool and die trade is a “huge need.”
The GRM building, located at 3670 Mill Creek Avenue, was built in the 1980’s and has undergone a number of owner and name changes. It first housed Ironwood Tool & Die, then in 2001 became GR Spring & Stamping, and in 2014 became GRM Automation. The company supplies tooling to the automotive manufacturing industry. Meulenberg started at Ironwood Tool & Die in 1994 first as an apprentice and then a tool and die maker before becoming plant manager. He now manages the plant that is 15,000 square feet – 14,000 square feet shop floor, and 1000 square feet offices. There are 24 employees, all full time, who are apprentices, journeyman tool and die makers, machinists, machinist apprentices, and design engineers. The most recent employee has been with the company five months, and some have been there 30 years or more.
Meulenberg says he likes the problem solving that comes with tool and die making. When Toyota had issues with their gas pedals sticking in 2009, his company, which was then GR Spring & Stamping, was the first line of defense. They built the new tooling that Toyota’s manufacturers used to make new parts.
“We built the tooling in six days so the manufacturers could fix it (gas pedals),” said Meulenberg. “We were on the phone to suppliers because we needed the materials right away.”
Meulenberg has seen major changes in the tool & die industry. About the time he entered the field as an apprentice tool and die maker in 1994, CAD (computer aided design) entered the industry. Design engineers began sitting at computers working on key boards when previously they sat at drafting tables using pen and paper to draw tool designs. Now the design engineers can create simulations showing things like the potential for cracks in materials under various degrees of stress when they are made into parts. At GRM machine pieces used to manufacture things like automobile heat shields are designed, assembled, and tested. Older manual equipment, including a 500 ton press and newer CNC equipment, sit on the shop floor.
Becoming a tool and die maker is a commitment requiring 8000 work hours and 600 hours of classes. GRM has an apprenticeship program with Grand Rapids Community College.
Meulenberg said manufacturing got a bad name during the 2008 recession.
“We didn’t lay anyone off, but others did,” he said. “That’s sort of when manufacturing got a bad name…people were saying don’t go into it.”
Meulenberg is hopeful that recruiting efforts in high schools and colleges will be successful in attracting new people to manufacturing.
Meulenberg, who is originally from Byron Center, lived in northeast Grand Rapids for a time and is now back in Byron Center. He graduated from South Christian High School and has an associate’s degree in arts at Grand Rapids Community College where he did his tool and die apprenticeship program. He and his wife Stacy, a surgical technician, have four children ages five to fourteen. Meulenberg is active with the youth group at his church.