From 1989-91, a U.S buyer couldn't find a Toshiba injection molding machine at any price. Congress had barred Japan's Toshiba Machine Co. Ltd. from selling injection presses and milling machines into the U.S. market for three years.
The reason was straight from the Cold War: Toshiba sold advanced milling machines to the Soviet Union for making ``silent'' submarine propellers, which made their subs difficult for the U.S. to detect.
The Commerce Department estimated the value of the technology at $8 billion.
Although none of that directly involved injection molding machines, Toshiba's U.S. plastics machinery business got stung. No sales, no orders, no shipments, no trade show exhibits, until the ban finally was lifted Dec. 28, 1991.
For Toshiba's U.S. operation, Toshiba Machine Co. America, the timing of the ban couldn't have been worse.
``We had been building up a good reputation for several years before that,'' said Jack Criffield, senior adviser to the company.
Just a decade earlier, most U.S. plastics companies had never heard of Japanese-made injection presses.
Tokyo-based Toshiba hired Criffield in 1973 to launch its U.S. sales effort. Tim Glassburn joined in 1986.
Toshiba Machine Co. America, in Elk Grove Village, Ill., built a nationwide sales force. Japanese machines moved aggressively into the U.S. market in the 1980s. Since then, industry officials say, imports consistently have captured about 50 percent of the U.S. market — and Japanese machines account for about half of all imports.
Toshiba presses gained a reputation for high quality.
Then the curtain came down. First came the ban. On top of that, sick of taking a pounding from low-priced Japanese presses, U.S. machinery makers piled on. They hinted at a dumping charge. Seven U.S. machine suppliers had already filed a complaint against Japan with the Department of Commerce, known as a 232 Petition, that sparked an investigation of whether imported presses were a national security threat.
The Japanese injection press makers were hit from all sides. But Toshiba alone took the brunt — the government-sanctioned blockade that became known as the Toshiba Ban.
Toshiba Machine Co. America laid off nearly its entire sales force, and cut loose its network of manufacturers' representatives.
Only Criffield and Glassburn remained.
They recalled the dark days, then Toshiba's recovery, in an interview at Western Plastics Expo in Long Beach, Calif., earlier this year.
Glassburn said: ``Customers would come up to Jack and I and say, `Listen, if you know anybody that has a used [Toshiba] machine for sale, would you let me know, because I'd like to buy it.'''
Salesmen live to sell, but Criffield, who now acts as senior adviser to the company, said the two men managed to keep busy during the three-year drought.
``I was strictly a PR man,'' he said. ``I kept in good contact with customers. Tim and I attended every trade show.''
They also worked to keep spare parts flowing. While spare-part imports were allowed, the U.S. Customs Department held up some deliveries.
``We never laid a serviceman off,'' Criffield said.
Toshiba officials kept a low profile, but their customers were outspoken. And mad.
``Toshiba makes the best machines in the world for our needs. ... When we buy a machine, we'll probably have to settle for second best,'' one told Plastics News in our first issue, March 6, 1989.
``We had a few loyal customers who wouldn't buy anything until we came back,'' Criffield said.
A group of Toshiba distributors in the United States sued to overturn the government ban, but lost.
Meanwhile, the Commerce Department denied the petition that would have hiked import duties on Japanese machines.
Commerce found that, ``Plastic molding machines are not being imported into the United States in such quantities or under such circumstances as to represent a threat to the national security.''
President George Bush approved the ruling.
The government, instead, issued regulations designed to bolster the global competitiveness of the seven U.S. machine makers.
Despite the 232 setback, the plastics industry succeeded in gaining the Commerce Department's attention, according to Robert Branand, a Washington lawyer who represented the seven machinery makers.
One of the seven petitioners was Newbury Industries Inc. in Newbury, Ohio. Glenn Frohring, who owned Newbury at that time, said U.S. suppliers had a hard time proving they were damaged.
``Our big problem was all the companies involved had excellent sales,'' he said. ``It was sort of like, `What are you guys crying about?'''
But Frohring said action did level the playing field. ``[The Japanese] adopted more mainstream pricing,'' he said.
Some U.S. companies didn't survive the Japanese onslaught. Others emerged stronger. In Batavia, Ohio, Cincinnati Milacron Inc. already had launched its Wolfpack strategy to battle the Japanese. Milacron's lower-priced Vista press hit the market in 1986.
One Wolfpack leader, Bruce Kozak, said the Japanese were firmly entrenched by the time Toshiba got banned. ``What I recall is that a lot of other Japanese suppliers kind of stepped in and were filling the void. From a competitive standpoint, we didn't notice much of a change,'' he said.
Van Dorn Plastic Machinery Co. of Strongsville, Ohio, launched an import-fighter, the HT series
``Certainly had the trend continued, and had we not found a way to be competitive, there is no telling how deep the erosion of the U.S. market might have gone,'' said Sid Rains, vice president of sales at the firm now called Van Dorn Demag Corp. and owned by a German parent.
When Toshiba came back in early 1992, Criffield and Glassburn rebuilt the sales staff. ``I was fortunate. I got 90 percent of our reps back,'' Criffield said.
Competitors nervously joked about boatloads of Toshibas headed for U.S. shores. Instead, their Japanese bosses said to go slow. ``They didn't want our names in the paper,'' Criffield said.
Toshiba Machine Co. America was not allowed to take orders until machines actually arrived, headquarters insisted.
``I just took the orders and put them in a drawer,'' Glassburn said.
Rains, of Van Dorn, said that since injection molding machines were not part of the illegal sales to the Russians, Toshiba's reputation never suffered in the plastics industry. He called Toshiba ``a first-class company and a first-class competitor.''
At the WPE show in California, Glassburn was busy selling machines. The decade-old ban is ancient history. Still, he wonders: ``What was the actual benefit of this thing? The only ones that benefited were Milacron and Van Dorn. And I don't know if they really did, because most of our customers came back to us anyway.''