Can toolmakers ever get along? At no time has it been more important for North American tooling groups to stop their squabbling and start working together. Nothing less than the industry's credibility is at stake.
Consider this: For the first time, the U.S. government is turning attention to the impact of offshore tool competition and has launched a trade investigation.
It is an issue that many mold shops have complained about mightily for several years. Now, they are getting what they asked for, a government inquiry. It calls for a unified front.
But another issue threatens to tear into toolmakers' fabric. In early March, President Bush issued tariffs on imported steel. Some mold makers, and their association leaders, have complained mightily there, too: Tariffs could spike prices for some tool steels.
That opens a Pandora's box: How do you justify, on one hand, the need for duties on imported tools and, at the same time, rail against tariffs on the steel used in those tools?
“You can't say I'm against what isn't good for me and in favor of what benefits me,” said Dan Jepson, president of Jepson Precision Tool Inc. in Cranesville, Pa.
A strong guiding hand could help a sticky situation. Someone needs to tell toolmakers that buying imported machines and materials is not much different than their customers buying imported molds.
Unfortunately, to date, leadership also is an issue. Mold and die builders, a fragile group, are an extremely fragmented bunch. There are at least four industry associations in the United States, plus at least three others in Canada, and pockets of regional mold and die associations. Many have a me-first mentality.
Several groups, including the American Mold Builders Association and the National Tooling & Machining Association, want to take some credit for helping to launch the investigation. And those groups all want to be the lead industry voice at the hearings that start May 21.
Plus, AMBA of Roselle, Ill., just mailed a survey of toolmakers to present at the hearings. It comes a week after mold-components supplier D-M-E Co. said it would launch a third-party, online survey for the same purpose.
Confused? Well, there is some light at the end of that tunnel.
First, Fort Washington, Md.-based NTMA wants to gather an umbrella coalition of tooling groups to work with the government commission. AMBA has not committed to joining that coalition but should consider attending.
Not everyone can be the leader. But there is power in numbers.
Second, D-M-E's survey is a great way for disenfranchised tool shops to show their support. It takes no more than 45 minutes online to fill out the confidential form, but it must be done by April 5.
If toolmakers do not bother to fill in the surveys, their cries of unfair competition carry little weight. Complete the surveys, and then cross your fingers that the industry can speak for once in unison.
Joseph Pryweller is a Plastics News senior reporter. His beats include toolmaking.