Richard Finnie II's visit to Shenzhen, China-based Konka Precision Mould Manufacturing Co. Ltd. put the threat from Chinese toolmakers directly in his sights. There, on the floor of one of Konka's five factories sat a polished steel mold for a television housing. Finnie's company, M.R. Mold & Engineering Corp. of Brea, Calif., had quoted that job. It took Finnie a minute to realize what he was seeing.
"I was a little angry," Finnie said. "We had lost the job from one of our customers in California. That to me was proof positive we were losing business to the Orient."
Fifteen members from mold-making and molding companies returned from the U.S. Plastics Mold Builders Trade Mission to Hong Kong, China and Singapore with a mixed bag of reactions.
Many said that while the Asian presence loomed as a competitive threat, North American companies should not be so quick to give up the business. In some instances, the finished molds were not on par with U.S. products, they said.
"I don't believe anyone returned from the mission and put a for-sale sign in front of their shops," said Glenn Starkey, a mission team leader and president of Progressive Components Inc. of Wauconda, Ill. "I think they came back educated and confident."
But some also came back wishing their customers could see what they saw.
"In some cases, I felt that U.S. molders were holding American toolmakers to a different standard," Finnie said. "I saw molds there that were completed and ready to ship with cosmetic defects. If we shipped tools that way, our customers would have been on the phone wondering if we had lost our marbles."
The nine-day mission, from Jan. 24 to Feb. 1, was sponsored by the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. and the U.S. Department of Commerce. The trip served to bring the U.S. shops visibility in Asia and help them learn from — and possibly link up with — their Asian counterparts, said Lori Anderson, SPI director of economic and international trade issues.
"I think everyone came back with a new perspective on the industry," said Anderson, who coordinated mission activities.
Upon returning, some executives have instituted strategies to help their shops compete better. Roger Klouda, president of MSI Mold Builders Inc. of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said he learned a lot more than he expected from the trip.
His shops now are instituting better management controls to help in scheduling and overseeing programs, Klouda said. Many Asian shops assign entire departments to schedule jobs and check on progress. Those skills can transfer easily to U.S. companies, Klouda said.
Tooling customers do not necessarily want to take jobs to Asia, he said. Better service, efficiency and speed to delivery could keep many of them here, he said.
"We have to prove it here time and time again," Klouda said. "I believe that we can do anything they're doing [in Asia], and our customers don't have to go there."
Starkey said that while U.S. shops might not be as competitive on price, they can compete in other arenas.
"Although there may be price differences, there might be an advantage in a domestic tool builder overseeing all customer needs," he said. "We can compete on value."
Some of that comes from product-development work, said mission participant Peter McGillivray, president of toolmaker Dynamic Engineering of Minneapolis. Many of the tools McGillivray saw on the trip seemed to be for proven, second-generation products, he said.
"The communication with customers there is limited," McGillivray said. "We have to start and stop all the time on new products and work on the fly. They seem to make the mold and be done with it right out of the shoot."
Indeed, most Chinese mold shops are not quite ready to come to the United States for work, said Roger Tsui, president of Zi Yan Molding USA, a Shanghai, China-based injection molder.
Tsui, interviewed March 22 during Moldmaking 2000 Expo in Cleveland, said many Chinese shops are not equipped in design and engineering to work in depth with U.S. companies. "A lot of initial design work must be done in the [United States] first," he said.
Yet, that could change. Hong Kong Polytechnic University, a supplier of skilled labor to China, churns out about 100 trained engineers a month on mold-software programs from Unigraphics Solutions Inc., officials there claimed.
"Still, you see people doing a lot more handwork that you see here," said Jerry Edquist, chairman and chief executive officer of Carlson Tool & Manufacturing Corp. of Cedarburg, Wis. "With the exception of a couple of shops, I would say that they don't have the ability to make high-precision molds."
Edquist, a mission participant, is stepping up plans to add more automation equipment at Carlson. The toolmaker also visited Mexico in late March to seek a possible joint venture partner.
"It's pretty clear that in our American culture, we tend to like to go it alone," Edquist said. "But I think we need to explore partnering opportunities. If you cover your head and wait for the storm to blow over, you might be dead first."
Molders on the trip came back with different impressions. Several said they would consider working with Asian mold shops.
Injection molder and mold maker Kaysun Tool & Engineering Corp. will attempt to qualify tooling shops in Asia for work, said Dave Robinson, president of the Manitowoc, Wis.-based company. Robinson expects that, within five years, buying tools from Asia will be an everyday occurrence.
"I've heard the horror stories like everyone else," Robinson said. "But we have to pay attention. I know it's coming, but I don't know much about what's available there."
Thomas Siwek, chief executive officer and co-chairman of automotive molder Pro Tech Plastics Inc. of West Chicago, Ill., said he sometimes gets frustrated by late deliveries of U.S.-built molds.
Chinese shops claim deliveries of 10 weeks or less, in many cases. Pro Tech will give a few shops there some work to see if they can make good on those claims, Siwek said.
"It's not even a money issue; it's a delivery issue," he said. "If I was a [U.S.] mold maker, I'd be tossing and turning, concerned about my long-term future."
Yet, Klouda said companies should question delivery claims of Chinese mold makers, which might not take into account design changes or finishing work that can lengthen jobs, he said.
U.S. mold makers must continue to change their attitude to remain competitive, he said. Instead of focusing so much time on the art of mold making, the industry should concentrate more on the process of making tools efficiently.
"We need to find better ways to bring craftsmanship to a production environment," Klouda said. "The typical mold maker thinks the job is 80 percent art and 20 percent making stuff. We need to flip that [percentage] on the shop floor."