So work might be a tad sluggish right now for toolmakers, and Asian competition is more real than ever before.
Yet, many larger tool shops look upon Asia more as an opportunity than a threat. They either are opening shops overseas or redoubling efforts to keep business in North America.
"You have to do that for survival," said Don Larson, president of Blaine, Minn.-based Advance Tool Inc. "Some customers want cheaper labor rates, and there's no other way around that."
Advance, a shop with about $21 million in annual sales, plans to open a mold-making plant in Malaysia in April with an undisclosed Malaysian partner.
The initial investment is small — the 15,000-square-foot plant will have 18 employees — and the risk minimal to the company and customers, Larson said.
Design and engineering will be performed in Minnesota and transferred electronically to the Asian plant.
"We have the same guarantees as with our own tooling," he said.
Others are looking for partners in Asia.
Tooling Tech Group already has bought four tool shops, including Huber Heights, Ohio-based Alpha Mold LLC. The company is owned by investment house River Associates LLC of Chattanooga, Tenn. Now, Tooling Tech is looking for an Asian partner to continue its expansion, said Executive Vice President Larry Beres.
"The difficulty is making money doing it," Beres said ."You have to know whom to deal with, who you can trust, who is competent. There's a risk, but you have to at least look overseas."
Other shops with broad resources said going to Asia is not necessarily something customers hunger for them to do. Shunting tools to Asia is a major logistical problem, said Richard Myers, president of M2M International Ltd. of Wallaceburg, Ontario.
Asian mold shops will have to compete by offering more services — and then increase prices, Myers said.
"It's pretty hard to get product design and prototyping and involvement done overseas," said Myers, who works with both Japanese and German partners on some projects. "And I know from working with the Far East that this will change. Cheaper tools from Asia will mature somewhat. It's a matter of time."
It is not something to ignore. In the Erie, Pa., area, several companies are banding together to ask congressmen and senators for relief from Asian competition, said Dennis Frampton, president of molder and mold maker C&J Industries Inc.
"We want to tell them how bad it's getting," he said. "If they want a level playing field, we'll become a total service industry and be flipping hamburgers for a living."
But that rancor is balanced by those who think many shops will not be maimed by Asian tooling. The ability of those shops to work globally and offer services will be their saving grace, said Don Madison, president of Pittsfield, Mass.-based Marland Mold Inc.
"When you're talking about the top shops, I don't think they are losing a lot of business to Asia right now," Madison said. "Global customers want to standardize products throughout the world. That's something the industry can do here."