From Invention to Innovation: Metal Forming and Machining in America

Most people don’t think too much about it. They just take for granted that we have things like buildings, automobiles, and tools. But, there was a time when metal forming, tool, and die manufacturing didn’t exist.


Pre-World War II

The history of metal forming and steel in America starts in the 19th century with the growth of pig iron. Britain went from 1.3 million tons in production in 1840 to 6.7 million tons in 1870. By 1913, there was 10.4 million tons being produced.

The U.S. started at a pitiful 0.32 tons, but by 1913 was producing 31.5 million – more than 3 times Britain.

Before 1860, steel was a very expensive product. It was made in small quantities and mostly used for things like tools, cutlery, and of course weapons like swords. Large metal structures were made or wrought or cast iron.

Steelmaking wasn’t really popular until the introduction of the Bessemer and open hearth process – both technologies that were pioneered in England.

The Bessemer process uses molten pig iron, which is converted to steel by blowing air through it. This is done after the steel is removed from the furnace.

The purpose for the air blast was to remove silicon and carbon from the iron. This releases heat and causes the temperature of the metal to rise. The Bessemer method was replaced with the open-hearth steelmaking process by the middle of the 20th century.

Combined, these processes made steelmaking cheap and reliable.

Today, this Ball Bearing Supplier wouldn’t exist without these methods. Neither would the Empire State Building, or most other buildings for that matter.

By the industrial revolution, Britain led the industrial revolution with its demand for iron and steel, combined with an abundance of capital and an endless supply of entrepreneurs.

In 1875, Britain accounted for almost 50 percent of the world’s pig iron production and almost 40 percent of the world’s steel. Most of this was exported to the U.S., which was rapidly building up its railway and industrial infrastructure.

Roughly two decades later, the U.S. became the leader of steel production, with British steel production falling to just 29 percent of the world’s total production.

After World War II

After World War II, many tradesmen immigrated to the U.S. to escape the wreckage of post-war Europe. They brought a strong work ethic and extensive knowledge of steelmaking. A wide range of technical training and experience was in demand during this time.

Die design and tool and die making were especially in-demand. Companies with the most technically diverse and experienced workers were positioned to dominate the market.

By employing skilled die makers and designers, companies could separate metalformers from their competitors. Because of this, experience became a marketable skill. It allowed workers to demand higher wages and command more respect, influence, and prestige.

At this time, it was common for a tool and die maker to get a final part drawing, and then he was expected to design and build a die from this scant piece of information.

Apprentices had to learn how to build dies from highly skilled artisans. A lot of the training was centered on machining and hand-working skillsets. The typical tools of this era were planers, shapers, duplicating machines, pantographs, profile grinders, surface grinders, drill presses and manual milling machines.

The 1980s

This was a time of crisis. Energy, inflation, and increasing wages all came together to threaten the steel industry.

Automakers were focused on controlling costs and reducing the time to market for their products. This created the 2D CAD design and CNC machinery industry. Laser technology also became popular.

New government mandates forced the increase of fuel economy for vehicles in the U.S., which led automakers to reduce the vehicle weight. This increased the demand for higher strength steels and new lightweight metals, like aluminum and aluminum alloys.


During the past decade, we’ve seen a rise in technology for producing steel, and now we have simple, accurate, and inexpensive flat-blank development and software that’s used to further lower the cost of production.

The metalworker of the future will be more engineer, however, than traditional tradesman. Experience and knowledge of the past won’t be key differentiators in the marketplace. The new metalformers and tool and die makers will be skilled engineers with a penchant for creative design.

This means we have to radically overhaul existing education and training programs because the jobs that metal workers will be working at won’t be jobs that exist today. They will be jobs of tomorrow – where technology and education combine into an entirely new career.

Tomorrow’s steel industry won’t look anything like its past.


4 Comments From Invention to Innovation: Metal Forming and Machining in America

  1. Maggie Allen

    Thanks for sharing all of this information about metal machining! It is so cool to think that the industry of metal fabrication will be changing and improving consistently. Also, it will be interesting to see how much of the actual machining process is affected by the computers that are controlling the process. I wouldn’t be surprised if the entire process becomes automatized thanks to that technology!

  2. John

    It’s exciting to think about the possibilities for the future of metalwork and construction in particular. The industry is looking for more educated, creative problem-solvers to continue innovation and lead the industry to bigger, better, and more efficient places. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Ivan Widjaya


      I agree – and yes, they need to use Internet more for securing new business and boosting branding.


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