When the world's toolmakers knock on America's door, they should not expect a welcoming committee.
Mold builders in the United States are fighting a battle against their brethren in Europe, Asia and Canada, whom they say are snaring an increasing chunk of business from American customers. Compounding matters, they say that trade barriers make it difficult to compete in foreign lands.
The fight has led to some harsh words from mold makers in both the United States and other countries and the possibility of legislation to force a turnabout in the large trade imbalance.
``We've got to put something together like NAFTA so our trade agreements have value,'' said international marketing director James Meinert of Snider Mold Co. in Mequon, Wis. ``We need copyright protection so somebody in China doesn't copy our molds sent there. It's one of the reasons smaller companies don't export; they're afraid of losing technology.''
Meinert spoke before a U.S. House of Representatives trade committee in September on the need for ``fast track'' legislation that allows the U.S. government to negotiate favorable trade terms with other countries. His talk, on behalf of his company and the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., has so far not netted new regulations.
Yet, figures from the U.S. Department of Commerce back up Meinert's concerns. In 1996, the United States exported molds valued at $445 million, while tools imported to America from elsewhere totaled $1.18 billion. That left a $735 million gap between mold exports and imports.
If anything, the problem is getting worse. Figures for the first 11 months of 1997 show an $850 million trade imbalance between exports and imports. That concerns Lori Anderson, director of government affairs for international and economic trade issues with SPI. The association is attempting to recruit mold makers for upcoming trade missions to foreign countries.
``Not enough [tooling] companies are taking advantage of it,'' Anderson said. ``It should be a concern to them. But they aren't always big global thinkers.''
Meanwhile, foreign competition is growing. In Portugal, that long-time mold making community has seen exports rise from $138 million five years ago to $249 million in 1997. While a decreasing percentage of molds go to the United States, America is still Portugal's largest mold trading partner.
While figures were not available in Canada, the number of tool shops in Windsor, Ontario, has grown 12.4 percent from 1994 through 1997, according to the Windsor-based Canadian Association of Moldmakers Today, the Windsor area — a major exporter of molds across the Detroit River for the automotive industry — has 165 shops compared to 147 in 1994.
Mold imports from Canada totaled about $569 million for the first 11 months of 1997, according to Commerce Department figures.
Canada's close proximity to the U.S. automotive industry and the long tradition of both plastics and steel manufacturing in that country are factors, said Dennis DesRosiers, a consultant to the tooling industry with DesRosiers Automotive Consultants in Hamilton, Ontario. Tool shops in Windsor, Sarnia, Ontario and the Toronto area are major exporters, he said.
``The North American auto industry is coming to Canada to buy tools in droves,'' DesRosiers said. ``It's partially related to the strength of the dollar, but you have to have high-level capabilities. The Americans are not able to compete as well across the board on the high-quality, sophisticated tools that our industry makes.''
Those are fighting words that rankle some U.S. toolmakers such as Mark Krajniak, president of Hale Molds Inc. in Rochester Hills, Mich. Krajniak, who just completed a term as national president of the American Mold Builders Association, said the level of quality of U.S. toolmakers matches that of anywhere else in the world.
Yet, Krajniak said price was a major concern, especially with competition from Asia. Still, tools from Taiwan, the leading exporter of molds from Asia, only accounted for about $21 million for the first 11 months of 1997.
``They aren't going away though,'' Krajniak said. ``Our industry can't sit back. But we have the edge on them in innovations and in making running changes to molds. I don't think a company wants to send a mold back to Asia, or even Portugal, to have mold changes made.''
The Portuguese have seen their edge dissipate a bit in the United States, where they used to command more than half their exports. Now, with only about 18 percent of total exports going to the United States, they have looked elsewhere.
The complaints cut both ways. While U.S. toolmakers worry about molds moving offshore, some Portuguese toolmakers fret about how difficult it is to match U.S. prices.
Paulo Pinto, commercial manager of Simoldes Acos LDA in Oliveira de Azemeis, Portugal, said the problem is especially acute in the automotive industry, where low-balling takes place.
``Quite often, the quoted prices by U.S. companies are not what we can reasonably expect to pay to make the mold,'' Pinto said. ``It's not our way to dump a low price on our customers and then play catch-up later once the job starts. That's not playing fair.''
In an industry increasingly expanding its global borders, expect the turf wars to continue.