You can buy a Japanese car made in Ohio, Kentucky or Tennessee. How about an injection molding machine? It's already happening on a small scale. Two companies, Toshiba Machine Co. America and JSW Plastics Machinery Inc., attach U.S.-sourced screws, barrels and other parts to machines shipped from Japan. That saves money.
Watch for this trend to escalate. Leading the way into 1995 is Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., part of Japan's largest industrial group. MHI has confirmed plans to assemble injection presses at a 5-year-old plant in Hopkinsville, Ky., that builds computer numerically controlled machining centers.
U.S.-made screws and barrels are on Mitsubishi's agenda. But, significantly, Mitsubishi also wants to source machine bases and cast metal parts from North America as well.
The hammer of global currency markets is forcing change. The soaring yen has forced Japanese machinery makers to hike U.S. prices, even as profit shrinks. This has been going on since 1992. Last July, it broke through the 100-yen-to-the-dollar barrier.
Even Japanese companies, patient and forethoughtful as they are, can't accept razor-thin profit in the important U.S. injection press market for years on end. They have limits.
The U.S. plastics industry should welcome this trend. Suppliers of components will get more business, and can learn quite a bit from their new Japanese customers. More domestic assembly means jobs-high-paying ones.
For years, the Japanese have prospered in the United States by warehousing standard, imported machines for quick shipment. That stung domestic suppliers, but forced them to get better, much like the Big Three automakers. Hard feelings still surface from time to time. Remember the coalition of four companies that last year warned the Japanese, in a very public fashion, against dumping machines? Those wounds should be soothed by U.S. manufacturing by Japanese press makers.
It won't be easy. Any company needs a minimum, consistent sales volume to justify a new manufacturing location, whether it makes cars or injection molding machines. Another strategy, joint ventures, can be tricky-as JSW found out in 1990. After building a few JSW presses, Natco Inc. closed its machinery operation in Richmond, Ind., ending an agreement between the firms.
There are hundreds of complex details to work out, down to the thickness of sheet metal and size of screws.
But U.S. manufacturing simply makes economic sense for the Japanese.
Another positive sign: The Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. reports its effort to collect import numbers from foreign firms, including five from Japan, is going well. We encourage full participation in this very important effort-and full public release of the data.