NEW YORK — Several times throughout the staggered rise of the Portuguese mold-making industry, observers have counted out the country. The first time was in the late 1970s, when Portugal was in the midst of a shift to a free-market economy. The second time was in the early 1990s, when other countries started competing with Portugal's advantage in low-cost mold production.
Now, with the rise of tooling companies in the Far East, Portugal must respond again.
It is doing that by staying ahead of the technology curve — a trend started when the industry was teetering in the early 1990s — and by going electronic in its global dealings.
"People have said we were finished several times" said Luis Febra, managing director of mold maker Socem ED (Booth E12317) in Maceira, Portugal. "They'll probably say that again. But we always rise to the challenges."
A contingent of Portuguese mold shops showed why they were still alive and kicking during a technical briefing May 1 at the Portuguese Trade Commission offices in New York.
While they talked of growth, mold exports to the United States have remained stagnant. U.S. exports from Portugal have accounted for 16 percent of total shipments, or about $32 million a year, during the past half-decade. Europe is a far bigger trading partner.
The Portuguese have embarked on an extensive trade mission in North America to raise those figures, culminating in 18 tool shops exhibiting at NPE 2000 in June. Some of those tool shops, such as Socem, will be part of the Portuguese Trade Commission's NPE exhibit (Booths E12317, E12417, E12517).
Mold executives explained how they have mixed a potent cocktail of advantages over competitors: low-cost production compared to European and North American neighbors and some of the best mold-making technology in the world.
That technology was presented center stage at the briefing. Speakers talked about cutting-edge developments in rapid prototyping and tooling, multicavity tools, high-speed machines, lower-priced large molds and electronic communication.
The country's 250-plus tool shops on average reinvest 15 percent of sales into new equipment, said Joaquim Menezes, managing director of Iberomoldes SA (Booth E12317), one of the country's largest grouping of mold shops, based in Marinha Grande, Portugal.
That figure is much higher than in other developed nations, he said. By doing that, Portugal can provide a comfort level unlike Asian nations, like China and Taiwan, that are growing in number.
"You're getting a surprise box [from Asia]," Menezes said. "You can't depend as much on the quality. We have more stability by updating technology and understanding customer needs."
Yet, Iberomoldes and others recognize the need to work well with Asia and other regions. Iberomoldes is leading a group of mold makers to unite the world through a Web-based mold software system.
The company — with sales of about $45 million last year — has joined with mold makers and technology centers in China, Mexico and Germany on the package.
The companies include IberoTec SA de CV of Chihuahua, Mexico, and Olho-Technik of Lohne, Germany, as well as Guangdong Machinery Research Institute in Guangzhou, China, and Marinha Grande-based Centimfe, Portugal's mold technology center.
The consortium, through 15 pilot projects to date, is attempting to put all work online, from activity reports to data transfers to video conferencing. The key, compared to other software packages, is the welding of multicultural, multilanguage companies into one common Web system.
Together, they have spent $5 million since last year on software development, Menezes said.
The three-year project, due to end in 2002, will result in a tooling venture that crosses time zones, Menezes said. Hence its name: Round the Clock (seen on its Web site, www.round-clock.com).
"The new way to measure distance is time," Menezes said. "At the end of our eight-hour work day, the other team's work is just developing. The software gives us real-time interaction."
But without the Portuguese mold community, some think the project could go too far to source molds out of the country. "I like to be a little more patriotic in my approach," said Antonio Santos, president of Marinha Grande-based engineering company Tecmolde Lda.
Yet, exports mean survival in Portugal. The country's mold-making region is only about 20 miles in diameter, and more than 90 percent of its tools are exported.
Tool shops are looking for new ways to compete. Iberomoldes, working with a Latin American partner, recently opened a tooling plant in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Other companies, including LN Moldes Lda. (Booth E12317) of Maceira, have started injection molding divisions to broaden their base.
LN opened a 22,000-square-foot facility in January with six presses from 60-300 tons, said LN Moldes President Leonel Gomes Costa. The $3 million investment is part of a larger move to widen the country's offerings, Costa said.
Cost still plays a role in the work. Portuguese tools on average are about 30-40 percent less expensive that those built in the United States, Tecmolde's Santos said. Skilled labor also is abundant, he said.
"At 15 years old, our children are already starting to learn how to use equipment," Santos said.