Like an electrified wheat field, rows of milling and grinding machines whir at high speed in a concrete and glass structure owned by the government of Singapore. Inside, more than 250 students, most 16 and 17 years old, work the machines like they would a fall harvest. They are learning the tooling trade in a "teaching factory" with low tuition and 100 percent job placement.
Many of those students eventually will make molds for North America at more than 600 tool shops in Singapore.
"Our industry is finding the need to globalize," explained Cheng-Kwang Phang, executive director of the Singapore Precision Engineering and Tooling Association. "We believe that if customers come to Singapore, they will make money fast. We have skilled labor and the cream of the crop in tooling."
Toolmaking is a young industry in Singapore. The country is one of many - including those throughout Asia and Europe - girding for growth outside its own land. Singapore's toolmakers must move outside of its borders to survive. After all, the country is the size of Denver.
Others already have beaten a path to America with some success. Japanese processors serving the automotive industry opened shops in the United States in the late 1970s and continue to grow. Most of them initially rode the coattails of Japanese automakers and now are finding new opportunities both with those companies and U.S.-based car companies.
"The big reason for growth is that two major companies, Toyota [Motor Manufacturing Inc.] and Honda [of America Manufacturing Inc.], continue to increase their vehicle platforms here," said John Wilson, finance director of Green Tokai Co. Ltd. of Brookville, Ohio. "As they do that, we have to grow with them."
Green Tokai, a maker of extruded and molded parts, also is finding the worldwide push for product sourcing to its benefit. The company - owned by Tokai Kogyo of Nagoya, Japan - first came over at Honda's asking in 1978. With work increasing, the company expanded its plant by 26,000 square feet in 1998.
Others are trying to tap the U.S. market for the first time. In June, two Stuttgart, Germany, tool shops - EberspÃ¤cher Formenbau GmbH and Hummel-Formen GmbH - plan to open a factory in Cottondale, Ala., on the site of a third partner, equipment supplier Smith's Machine.
The companies plan to work with a Mercedes-Benz plant in nearby Vance, Ala., and a BMW plant in Spartanburg, S.C. The company was asked by its customers to open global plants to make injection molds, said Frank Doettling, chief executive officer of EberspÃ¤cher Formenbau.
"The main point is to get nearer our clients and give the same high-class service," Doettling said.
The venture, known as Alabama Precision Mold, plans to include tool design and manufacturing at the partners' plants in Germany and Italy. Intercontinental reach will give the company an edge over many competitors, Doettling said.
"Many toolmakers [in the United States] have thought about doing this or have formed alliances," Doettling said. "But we're very much in the make-it-happen mode with an actual plant. As far as I know, it is the first marriage over the Atlantic."
Some barriers still exist, Doettling said. If his German company were to come here on its own, it would have to build relationships and essentially start from scratch. But exporting molds from Germany had become a higher-cost option, he added.
Barriers sometimes can be overcome with product. Packaging molder Iris USA Inc. opened two plants in the United States since late 1994 and now has 450 workers here.
The company, owned by Iris Ohyama Inc. of Sendai, Japan, took a different approach to the U.S. market when it decided to enter, said marketing manager Jay Johnson, based at Iris' U.S. headquarters in Pleasant Prairie, Wis.
"Our parent company had never sold into the American market," Johnson said. "You can't go shipping large plastic products across the ocean. We needed to make our products domestically."
But Iris faced the usual hurdles: language and cultural barriers and limited relations with U.S.-based end users. Iris needed to reach large discount retailers such as WalMart Stores Inc. that would sell its line of plastic storage boxes and chests.
The company focused on making products that were fairly unusual for North America. For price- and product-sensitive retailers, brand awareness made little difference, Johnson said. But an eye-catching new product would.
Iris molded a clear-plastic mini-chest of drawers, made from polypropylene, that allows customers to see the chest's contents when closed. It caught on, and Iris soon found the need to build a second plant in Wisconsin a year after opening a Stockton, Calif., facility.
Still, to this day, few other overseas molders have penetrated the same market segment, Johnson said.
"Overseas competition is somewhat hindered unless they want to make a major investment here," Johnson said. "A product got us into the market. But other companies can't be assured of the same success."