MARINHA GRANDE, PORTUGAL — Welcome to the world of Portuguese mold making, where the hours are long and so are the flights.
That world consumes Alfredo Morgado, the travel-weary president of Somoltec Lda., a tooling company in Marinha Grande. Morgado said in a March 3 interview that two weeks ago, he had been in Venezuela; the next week, he would jet to Turkey; and the day before, he had signed an agreement with a new U.S.-based customer that will take him to the United States later this year.
Morgado, who frequently works past 8 p.m. in his office in the midst of a pine-laden forest, had come to grips with how business had changed from the days when he made molds for U.S.-built plastic dolls instead of complex parts for multinational companies.
``The Portuguese industry is always developing, and we are all the time trying to get new customers'' to export to, Morgado said. ``But it is not a business anymore that I would want my children to enter. I must live here day and night so we can make the best molds for the world.''
Morgado's lament underscores the price of success that Portuguese toolmakers have paid. Time has been slashed now that the industry — which features tooling shops on virtually every street in two rural communities — has adjusted to a whirlwind pace of change and redefinition.
They are a resilient bunch. A business that formed half a century ago as a stepsister to the area's ancient glassmaking industry, Portuguese mold making now forms an inbred cluster of 250 companies located around the central Portuguese towns of Marinha Grande and Oliveira de Azemeis.
The two regions have 80,000 people, with about 17,500 of them in mold building.
Five years ago, that industry looked ready to sing its final fados, the mournful folk tunes of the seaside country that recall better times in days past. Toolmaking was flagging in influence and sales.
``We were the El Dorado of the tooling industry,'' said Marinha Grande-based sales engineer Carlos Saboga of mold parts supplier D-M-E Co. of Madison Heights, Mich. ``Everyone all over the world would come here. But we had to refocus a few years ago or self-destruct.''
The problem partly was fueled by U.S. companies, which had pulled back from Portugal. With Portugal's entrance into the European Community, prices were no longer at bargain basement rates. The Gulf War and a stagnating U.S. economy caused companies such as toymaker Hasbro Inc. of Pawtucket, R.I., to scale back operations in Portugal.
Mold sales to the United States dwindled to 17.5 percent of Portugal's total mold exports in 1996, after bulging at more than 50 percent during the 1980s.
By 1993 the industry had hit a wall. Export sales dropped to $130 million, perilously close to the levels of 1974 when a bloodless coup toppled the country's communist regime and started opening the export floodgates.
But observers did not know the Portuguese will to survive, said Armando Dimas, general manager of tooling company Anibal H. Abrantes SA, the country's first toolmaking firm in Marinha Grande.
``When times are most difficult, we are best at finding solutions,'' Dimas said. ``We may always be late for appointments, and we like to take leisurely lunches. That fools people who don't realize that we have another side. We are also known as explorers.''
Hence, the country — which historically blazed new trading paths to India and discovered Brazil — has seen its toolmakers navigate a new route to remain prominent on the world stage. It is an industry reborn.
Tooling companies rebounded by doing something risky: When times were toughest, they invested heavily in new equipment, shifted to more complex molds in markets including housewares and electronics. They also found new trading partners from South America to Singapore.
``New blood has helped,'' said associate professor Ant¢nio MagalhÃes da Cunha, an observer of the tooling industry based at the University of Minho in GuimarÃes, Portugal. ``Fresh owners of companies founded 20 or 30 years ago have taken over and decided to push their capabilities. The companies are now technically very good, but it is still early in the process.''
The group is targeting business in high-tech molds, worlds apart from the simpler tools of the industry's youth, said Joaquim Menezes, president of Iberomoldes SA in Marinha Grande and head of the industry's Centimfe technology center in Marinha Grande.
``We can leave the cheaper molds to places like Taiwan or Thailand,'' Menezes said. ``Because of our high quality, molds now take a one-way ticket from Portugal without a return attached.''
On the average, companies now invest in new equipment and plant space at a clip equaling about 20 percent of annual sales, said Jose Marcos, manager of Atlantico Bank of Portugal in Caldas da Rainha, Portugal.
The government provides some support. Through the European Union, about 10-15 percent of new equipment is subsidized, Morgado said. Still, that is a drop in the bucket for equipment costing hundreds of thousands of dollars per piece.
The Portuguese share another cultural phenomenon: They constantly work together, subcontracting jobs and exchanging technology, according to Morgado.
``Our prices are about our only trade secret,'' he said.
Growth is everywhere, even where land is not plentiful. At Moldopl stico SA in Oliveira de Azemeis, overlooking the main plant, new buildings are wedged onto a steep hillside. The buildings house tryout injection presses with clamping forces to 1,300 tons and wire electric discharge machining equipment.
At LN Moldes Lda. in Maceira, Portugal, the company is working on its third recent expansion, this one an area of about 77,000 square feet. The company has expanded its business with U.S. auto parts supplier Delphi Automotive Systems of Troy, Mich., and Eagle Electric Manufacturing Co. of Long Island City, N.Y., among others.
``Our shop is busy juggling schedules for a diversified number of customers,'' said LN President Leonel Gomes Costa. ``We have lost some jobs in North America because of price, but we've learned to grow with the times.''
Europe and South America have steadily looked to Portugal for molds. Tools shipped to Germany and France, for instance, have surged from a combined 23 percent of exports in 1993 to 29 percent today.
With the new business come larger companies. Iberomoldes, a holding company, has bought 14 local toolmakers within a decade to give the firm heft to compete. Simoldes Lda. in Oliveira de Azemeis has kept up with its neighbor to the south. Since 1993, the firm has converted to conglomerate status by opening three tooling firms on the same street as 39-year-old Simoldes Acos. The four plants, which have separate management but share jobs, employ about 500 and have annual sales of roughly $41 million.
The tooling facilities together use 100 computer-aided-design/ manufacturing stations, state-of-the-art computer numerically controlled machining centers and wire EDM steel-cutting machines.
``We didn't want an organization with layers upon layers of management, but with managers at each plant making decisions,'' said Simoldes Acos commercial manager Paulo Ferreira Pinto. ``Our goal is to react in real time with the resources, but not the weight, of a large company slowing us down.''
Export sales also have reacted. In 1997, Portuguese mold makers shipped $249 million in tools, according to figures from the Portuguese Trade Commission in Lisbon. That was up from only $202 million two years ago.
Compare that with figures for the United States, where $445 million worth of tools was exported during 1996, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. While that seems like a wide gap, Portugal is about the size of Indiana with a population of about 10 million. Yet, its mold exports are more than half that of the United States.
``Portugal's strength is in high-tech molds, where it is in a great position to compete on exports,'' said industry consultant Agostino von Hassell of Repton Group LLC in New York.
``They know how to deal with foreign customs, measuring systems, terminology, language and standards of practice.''
The industry recently celebrated its rebirth by holding Moldes Portugal 1998, its first international conference and brokerage event.
The event, held March 5-8, included representatives of such companies as Rubbermaid Inc. of Wooster, Ohio, medical products producer Becton Dickinson & Co. of Franklin Lakes, N.J., and auto parts maker Denso Manufacturing UK Ltd. of Telford, England.
As befits an industry still evolving, growth was a main conference topic.
Menezes of Iberomoldes wondered how much faster the Portuguese can deliver a mold when they are working with such a broad customer base with differing standards.
Others asked whether the industry should buy mold-simulation software or more high-speed machining centers. And in the middle of the debate, Menezes announced that the European Union would fund three new rapid prototyping centers in Portugal to help mold makers make quick models.
Yet, for an industry that has not stood still, that news was not necessarily greeted with a chorus of cheers.
``A few years ago, we were all asking for this,'' said one company engineer who did not want to be identified. ``But now, a lot of companies already have rapid prototyping. There are times right now when the individual companies are far ahead of the government. That couldn't have been said a few years back.''