DALTON, When Munekata America Inc. decided to build an in-house tool shop, the custom molder began by flying three employees to Japan for three years of training. It was an expensive step, but essential to duplicate the capabilities of the parent firm's mold-making facility in Japan, said President Minoru Yasuda.
``Our customers, almost 100 percent, ask for molds made in Japan,'' Yasuda said. ``But because of the strong yen, it is becoming very difficult to bring Japanese tooling into the United States.''
Munekata America, based in Dalton, has been making injection molded parts for the consumer electronics industry since 1989. The meat of the business is making television and computer housings.
Nearly all of its customers are Japanese transplants, including the U.S. manufacturing arms of JVC Manufacturing Co., Matsushita Communications Corp., Mitsubishi Consumer Electronics America Inc., NEC Technologies Inc. and Toshiba America Consumer Products Inc.
While a sour economy in Japan has hurt many of the companies, Munekata America has a successful business thanks, in part, to the dizzying rise in the dollar/yen exchange rate.
The high cost of importing goods from Japan has forced transplant companies to step up U.S. production and, in turn, purchases from U.S. parts suppliers, Yasuda said.
``All of our customers are growing very successfully, and have been giving us more business year by year,'' he said.
The company's sole major non-Japanese customer is a transplant from France: Thomson Consumer Electronics Inc. Munekata America makes a one-piece frame, using gas-assisted molding, for Thomson's 31-inch RCA Colortrak television.
The part, which replaced 23 molded parts, won first place for consumer products in the new-product design competition at the Structural Plastics Division's April meeting in San Francisco.
Ray Altenschulte, senior member of Thomson's technical staff in Indianapolis, said Munekata is ``not your typical American molder/finisher.''
``They are head-and-shoulders above the rest,'' in terms of quality, ability to handle projects from design through assembly, and experience in gas-assist molding, Altenschulte said.
Munekata America now has three other customers considering the use of parts made with the gas-assist process, including two that may use them as early as 1994.
``Through correct design with gas-assist, we can eliminate parts, tooling costs for those parts, and also reduce part weight,'' said Mike Tritton, Munekata's engineering manager.
``It also reduces assembly costs. That can add up to a significant savings for our customers,'' he said.
Matsushita Television Co. in Franklin Park, Ill., is one Munekata customer with a pending gas-assist project, said William Volkmar, Matsushita's assistant general manager for purchasing. The company is interested because of the potential cost savings.
Saving money is important because of the cutthroat nature of the TV manufacturing industry, Yasuda said.
``Everybody is killing each other. There are no survivors,'' Yasuda said. ``We are trying very hard to introduce new technologies, like gas-assist and low-pressure molding, to help our customers survive.''
Having the capability to make sophisticated tooling, like the mold used for the Thomson cabinet, is a major reason Munekata America chose to send its three future mold makers to Japan for long-term training.
The team already has been in Japan for one year, and the company has prepared land adjacent to its Dalton molding plant for the new tool shop.
The company's 10-year plan also calls for building additional molding plants in North America by the year 2000. While the economy has deflated since the plan was devised, ``our target has not changed,'' Yasuda said.
``We still intend to make it happen,'' he said.
Munekata America chose Dalton for its first plant because of its proximity to Japanese transplant customers in Georgia, the Carolinas and Tennessee.
The plant has 284 full-time employees, plus 73 temporary workers added during the peak August-to-November season for the consumer electronics industry.
Included in the total are 10 Japanese workers, called advisers, who came to Georgia ``to transfer our know-how that we have established in Japan,'' Yasuda said.
The plant has 13 presses, all from Ube and Toshiba, with clamping forces up to 1,600 tons.
The facility is highly automated, with robots picking parts at each machine and placing them on twin conveyors that lead to an inspection and packaging area. From there, many parts are placed on additional conveyors and whisked to various secondary operations, including painting, silk screening, pad printing, welding and assembly.
Munekata America reported sales of $29 million for the fiscal year ended March 31, placing 81st in Plastics News' 1993 ranking of North American custom injection molders.
Munekata Co. Ltd., the Osaka-based parent, was founded 35 years ago as a subcontractor making transistor radios for Matsushita. The company has a plant in Dublin, Ireland, which makes TV cabinets for the European market.