SAN NICOLAS DE LOS GARZAS, MEXICO - Pl sticos Iga is a survivor among the dwindling ranks of Mexico's plastic toy molders. Battered by the chill winds of free trade and undermined by a severe reduction in retail customers' buying power since the 1994 peso devaluation, the Mexican toy industry has been decimated.
In the past 10 years the more than 300 companies manufacturing in the sector have seen their number halved, while an estimated 6,000 workers have lost their jobs since Mexico's latest economic crisis.
Even so, some companies such as San Nicol s de los Garzas-based Pl sticos Iga which are prepared to invest in greater quality and efficiency and to capture molding/assembly contracts from foreign toy giants, still are very much in the game.
Pl sticos Iga was an early convert to doing business as a maquiladora toy molder south of the border, and as a local supplier for global firms such as Mattel Inc. and Hasbro Inc., said Carlos Iga Canvati, the company's founder and president.
Even before Mexico's protected markets opened with the country's admission to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1985, the firm began to export toys through maquila work for U.S. manufacturers such as musical-toy producer Proll of Bloom-field, N.J.
Late last year Pl sticos re-sponded to an urgent call to produce a new Mattel toy in Mexico by in-vesting nearly US$3 million. The firm almost doubled its total machinery to handle the contract, purchasing 24 new Nissei injection presses with clamping forces ranging from 60-180 tons. Pl sticos would not identify the toy it is making for Mattel.
The Mattel work means Pl s-ticos had to devote a major part of its molding and assembly operations to the multipart, color ABS toy. The work uses 42 separate molds, supplied by Mattel, Iga said.
``The only security we have is that Mattel is looking to expand its operations in Mexico,'' according to Iga. ``We trust in the future.''
Before the devaluation crisis, Pl sticos ran its 26 presses flat out to serve export customers and the domestic market. But by late last year, 1994 foreign sales of US$4.5 million reached nearly US$9 million.
``That was the only way we could survive and continue to grow,'' Iga said in an interview at his office in San Nicol s de los Garzas.
However, he said the firm lacks some of the range of processes, such as rotational molding and artificial-hair rooting for figurine heads, that some U.S. toy firms expect from fully integrated suppliers.
Pl sticos Iga, founded in 1964, operated for many years as a general plastics molder, injecting parts such as sticky tape cores and dispensers, bottle caps and Jacuzzi pump parts.
The firm began with a single, second-hand Moslow press, adding four other Italian IMI and Sandretto machines from 80-200 tons each.
In 1976 Plasticos moved to a 65,000-square-foot San Nicol s de los Garzas site, and invested US$5 million to buy 21 new Reed presses with clamping forces ranging from 80-700 tons.
In 1991, after making toys for other firms, Pl sticos found a valuable niche in the domestic market for inexpensive plastic toys and introduced its own brand. It made some molds and brought in others from the Processed Plastic Co. of Mont-gomery, Ill.
Despite the recession, the firm has continued to grow. Sales have risen from US$16 million in 1994 to an estimated US$24 million this year.
The company expects exports to account for about half of its current-year sales.
After its latest expansion in machinery, Pl sticos plans design upgrades to its own product range with some original toys.
In three to five years, Iga said he aims to transfer the firm's operations from the tight San Nicol s de los Garzas plant to a greenfield location in the north of the city.
``It's impossible to grow more here. We are operating at around 80 percent of capacity but we could save costs and be more efficient,'' he explained.
Iga said he would like to export more to South America, where markets like Argentina appear attractive.
But, so far, when shipping costs are added, the average toys Pl sticos' range are not competitive, Iga said.