The West didn´t really win the Cold War — the East just got tired of fighting for a system that was obviously inferior. The Hemscheidt injection press operation in the former East Germany managed to hang on for more than a decade, but now seems to have lost the battle for customers that would have guaranteed long-term success.
The Schwerin plant once was one of three East German firms that made injection molding machines for customers east of the Iron Curtain. All three were forced to find new owners soon after glasnost gave way to real freedom in 1989.
German press maker Mannesmann Demag AG bought the first, a small-press factory in Wiehe, in 1990. That plant remains open.
The plant in Freital, known as Sächsische Kunststofftechnik GmbH, was sold to a German businessman in 1993. That plant filed for bankruptcy in 1997 after a proposed purchase by German press maker Arburg GmbH & Co. fell through.
But the Schwerin plant radically downsized and stayed alive — thanks in part to a 1991 investment by Hemscheidt Group, a manufacturer of coal-mining equipment. The plant changed hands again in 1996, when it was purchased by the owners of HPM Corp. of Mount Gilead, Ohio.
Those investments aside, the key to the Schwerin plant´s survival was its innovative two-platen, retractable tie-bar technology that pulls the tie bars back during each cycle to give complete access to molding area. Understand that, under communism, there were no rewards, no extra pay or recognition for building a better machine. The engineers and managers at Schwerin were driven by pride.
That resourcefulness kept the Schwerin operation alive after communism fell apart and press makers in eastern Germany faced world-class German competitors to the west.
HPM eventually introduced its own two-platen machine with retractable tie bars, built in Ohio. For a while Hemscheidt supplied components to HPM. But that relationship has ended and HPM officials now are trying to put distance between the two companies. Case in point: When HPM owners bought Hemscheidt in 1996, all news reports at the time said HPM itself was the new owner. Now that Hemscheidt is bankrupt, HPM says the companies are not connected "in any way, shape or form." An ominous development, to be sure.
Although foreign investors twice have "saved" Hemscheidt, today the Schwerin plant employs just 110, down from a bloated payroll of 2,500 in the communist era.
Hemscheidt´s managing director says several companies are interested in buying the plant, so perhaps it´s too soon to eulogize this industrious company. But any new investor would have to pump cash into the operation — HPM claims Hemscheidt´s hydraulic system is not reliable and the machines not productive enough, at least for the North American market.
If Hemscheidt does fade away, its workers can take some comfort knowing the retractable tie-bar design remains a unique, commercially viable machine. But that´s little solace to the people of Schwerin. Today they are pondering their fate in the world of global capitalism, looking on a map for Mount Gilead, half a world away.