The raw data from U.S. mold makers does not paint a pretty picture:
* Sales have dropped 28 percent since 1997, to $8.4 billion, according to a survey compiled by mold components supplier D-M-E Co. of Madison Heights, Mich.
* Almost 50,000 jobs have been lost, dropping employment in the sector to just under 150,000.
* More than 200 of the sector's roughly 4,400 shops have closed.
Armed with those numbers and stories of business lost, a parade of mold makers and tool and die firms converged on a well-attended May 21 hearing before the U.S. International Trade Commission.
The Washington meeting won't lead to any immediate relief. ITC only is gathering information for a report on industry economic conditions. Still, mold makers and their trade groups were not shy about touting their ultimate goal: government help dealing with what they see as an unfair international marketplace.
Caco Pacific Corp. in Covina, Calif., for example, blames the high value of the U.S. dollar for its recent troubles. The firm revealed that its sales have dropped from $34 million in 2000 to less than $10 million now, and its employment rolls have shrunk from 220 to 130.
W.G. Strohwig Tool & Die Inc., a 130-employee mold-building and die-casting shop in Richfield, Wis., said its sales are down 25 percent since 2000. Customers like Flambeau Corp. in Baraboo, Wis., tell Strohwig they can get molds for one-third the cost in China, and say that without tariff protection, the mold-making industry ``doesn't stand a chance,'' according to Strohwig testimony.
Apollo Tool Co. in Westfield, Wis., said customers like TRW Inc. and Microsoft Corp. have moved tooling work to Asia. A shop in China, for example, recently won a $23,000 contract from TRW - Apollo had bid $44,000 for the work.
While it was clear from testimony that the industry is suffering, untangling the reasons proved difficult.
A speaker from the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., talked of intense pricing pressures and an estimated 25 percent worldwide overcapacity in tool building and mold making. A representative from the Tooling and Manufacturing Association in Park Ridge, Ill., said the ``primary issue is still the shrinking customer base'' as manufacturing moves offshore.
Others talked about having trouble getting financing and the problems posed by the strong U.S. dollar. Some cited antagonistic and price-conscious relationships between manufacturers and their mold-making suppliers in the United States.
But since ITC is essentially the traffic cop for U.S. trade, presenters highlighted trade-related complaints.
``Our competition, from Asia,is one of the main problems,'' said Olav Bradley, chairman of the government affairs committee of the American Mold Builders Association, in Roselle, Ill. ``We have to get a more even playing field.''
In a recent survey, AMBA members identified low-cost overseas tooling shops as their biggest challenge. They favor higher tariffs on imported molds.
The congressman who called for the study, Rep. Phil English, R-Pa., said the investigation will provide valuable information on why the tooling sector is hurting. Crawford County, in his district, lost 800 tool and machining jobs last year, he said.
``Clearly, imports are a major part of the problem,'' English said in an interview after the hearing. But he said that to date ``a lot of this has the flavor of an urban legend.''
Commissioners heard more than seven hours of testimony, and asked detailed questions about industry economic conditions. But they also asked very pointed questions about other U.S. government data that ran counter to what the industry was saying.
For example, U.S. trade data showed that Chinese imports were less than 2 percent of total tooling imports, and U.S. economic data actually showed increases in U.S. tooling industry shipments through 2000, the most recent year it was available.
``The lion's share of what I'm hearing is with China,'' said Commissioner Jennifer Hillman. But, she noted that ``from pure import statistic numbers, China would not seem to be a big player.''
Dan Jepson, president of Jepson Precision Tool Inc. in Cranesville, Pa., said he expects Chinese import numbers to grow because the industry's customers keep ``telling us they can get stuff so much cheaper in China.''
Other speakers questioned the value of the government statistics.
Rep. Donald Manzullo, R-Ill., told the commission that government statistics have ``grossly underestimated'' tooling industry job losses in his district. He said the government needs to ``wake up to the fact that the U.S. is losing its manufacturing base.''
``As you go about studying it, you are dealing with flawed statistical material,'' Manzullo said.
D-M-E President Jerry Lirette said two industry data sources run counter to U.S. government data.
He cited his own company's survey, which included responses from about 20 percent of the plastics mold-making industry, and data from the National Tooling and Machining Association in Fort Washington, Md., which both show significant declines in industry economic activity in recent years.
NTMA President Matt Coffey urged the commission to look at subsidies that China, Taiwan, Portugal and Spain give the mold and tool industries, and he urged ITC to look at tariff disparities and raw material pricing ``manipulations.''
``We are part of a global market - we understand that,'' Coffey said. ``We are simply saying there is a disruption in the market.''