SLUMP FORCES HAND OF SINGAPORE'S MOLDERS

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SINGAPORE — Raising skill levels and targeting higher-value-added products is a familiar refrain to many in the plastics industry. But in few countries is the need more urgent than in the tiny nation-state of Singapore, which has barely 3 million people.

Long buoyed by its status as the electronics manufacturing capital of Southeast Asia, Singapore has seen its dominance in the sector erode, as many such products became commodity items, and as the nation's wage levels and cost factors rose steadily. That has delivered a body blow to Singapore's injection molding industry, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of the country's total plastic product manufacturing.

This heavy reliance on injection molding is unique to Singapore among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations; film and sheet extrusion is the predominant process used in other member nations.

Many multinational electronics manufacturers — especially Japanese concerns — have pulled up stakes in Singapore and shifted production to lower-cost countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Mexico.

Cases in point: Hymold Pte. Ltd., a member of the Singapore Plastics Industry Association, recently followed Dutch electronics giant Philips NV to Suzhou, China, where it will mold TV casings; and Singapore's Hi-P Tool and Die Pte. Ltd. announced in late November it plans to build a big injection molding plant to make electronics components in Guadalajara, Mexico.

As a result of such moves, Singapore's output of injection molded products plunged roughly 30 percent in value in 1995 from the previous year.

Sales of such products remained relatively flat last year, and little improvement is seen for at least the first half of 1997, according to Ronald Lim, SPIA secretary-general. He said in a Jan. 30 interview at SPIA offices that some government officials are forecasting a slight upturn in the electronics sector after June but, even if true, that would do little to revive Singapore's stagnant molding sector.

As a result, industry leaders are focusing more than ever on high-end technology and increased training. Lim — who also is managing director of the 430-employee precision injection molder Ryohin Pte. Ltd. — praised the Singapore government's Economic Development Board for setting up numerous industry training centers, and he said now it is up to the companies to make the best possible use of them.

He noted that as many multinational companies shift production plants out of Singapore, the size of the pie gets smaller, even though the value of the work that remains increases.

As a result, the industry needs to concentrate on specializing more in the manufacture of components for the computer, telecommunications and medical industries, which means greater use of thin-wall and gas-assisted injection molding, clean-room molding, robotics and the like. In particular, he noted there is a lot of activity in computer products such as disk drives and tape

drives.

``The trend to phase out labor-intensive and low-value-added products is definitely there,'' he said. ``We have to upgrade our staff, to meet the needs of high-tech customers.''

Meanwhile, Singapore continues to expand its polymer production capabilities. For the first 11 months of 1996, it recorded total plastics trade of S$5.3 billion (US$3.81 billion), of which S$4.1 billion (US$2.95 billion) was in primary plastics such as resins and compound masterbatches, according to Stephen Lee, chairman of the Singapore Trade Development Board. The balance — S$1.2 billion (US$863 million) — was in finished plastic products.