For decades, Portugal has been a mysterious but potentially dangerous place to North American toolmakers.
They know that somewhere in the small European country lurks a band of mold builders that competes with them for business. They hear rumors of a fat-cat industry fed with government subsidies and offering below-market prices for molds.
They think of Portugal as a vague threat, like far-off lightning that has yet to strike.
Like most coming storms, the Portuguese threat is something to prepare for but not necessarily to fear. After spending several days in the country's mold-making seat of Marinha Grande, I can attest that it is an industry to watch. However, some misinformation about Portuguese mold makers has traveled across the Atlantic.
The 250-strong legion of mold makers in Portugal has some advantages over its U.S. counterparts. The government, via the European Union, helps subsidize a major technology center, called Centimfe, that features the latest in computer numerically controlled machining centers, computer-aided-design/manufacturing workstations and other equipment. The nonprofit center performs both industry research and work for private companies.
Even more important, the industry has a major training program for new mold makers through Centimfe and other universities. The Portuguese offer widespread on-the-job training from high school forward through a part-time master's degree program in mold making.
Students no older than 16 puzzle over mold design on CAD computer screens and perform simple machining of cores and cavities in their version of Junior Achievement projects. Firms send workers a few hours each week to refine skills at Centimfe.
That's where they have an edge. Certainly not in prices, which have ballooned as part of the European Common Market, or in government subsidies, which only equate to about 15 percent of capital purchases in Portugal. Portugal has made its heaviest investments in training and new technology. The country has gone high tech with its molds.
According to figures from the National Tooling & Machining Association, the U.S. industry faces a serious challenge: Its toolmaking group is at least 20,000 people short. That's not the case in Portugal.
It's a problem that will haunt America for decades, said Agostino von Hassel, a tooling consultant with Repton Group LLC in New York. The lack of a trained work force is the single most-significant barrier to the growth of the U.S. mold-making industry, von Hassel said.
Meanwhile, countries such as Portugal, Taiwan and Canada continue to move into our markets and those of Europe and South America, regions that U.S. toolmakers could claim. If we had the bodies to do it, that is.
Joseph Pryweller is Plastics News' Detroit-based staff reporter.