For the past few years, U.S. mold makers have been on the short side of just about every trend that possibly could go against them. The U.S. International Trade Commission's recent report to Congress on the tool, die and mold industry explains the dire situation in stark detail:
* The industry supports an estimated 7,000 shops, but many have just a handful of skilled workers. Until recent times that huge number of small, entrepreneurial firms was a competitive advantage for the U.S. plastics industry. Today, however, with many customers slashing their supplier bases, small firms are scrambling for work.
* The strong U.S. dollar puts U.S. toolmakers at a disadvantage head-to-head with their counterparts in Canada, the largest importer of molds into the United States.
* Every year brings new competition from abroad. First it was Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and Portugal. Now low-cost shops in Eastern Europe, China and South Korea aggressively seek a piece of the pie.
* New technology makes toolmaking less of an art practiced by fine craftsmen and more of a commodity, which contributes to a nagging overcapacity problem.
* The recession is the nail in the coffin, especially for companies with too much debt.
* Manufacturers of products from cell phones to toys have shifted molding and assembly outside the United States, and tooling jobs tend to follow the molding.
* Finally, although automotive sales have been strong since 2000, the market has not been a bright spot for toolmakers. Nervous carmakers have delayed introducing new models, and original equipment manufacturers and Tier 1 suppliers alike have picked now to extort price rollbacks from their suppliers.
Now the whole mess is in the hands of a Congress that's not likely to go down in history as a defender of trade protectionism. What is it likely to do?
Our Q&A interview with Rep. Phil English, R-Pa., published Nov. 4, offers a few clues. The Erie-area congressman shows a notably strong grasp of the issue, and also of the problems that the fragmented tooling industry will have working with Washington to come up with a solution.
Being a good Republican, English made a strong case for a GOP agenda that he believes can help: tax reform and a pro-growth economic strategy. He's right, but it's not a cakewalk. Opening up the federal tax code to changes is inviting special-interest shenanigans. U.S. manufacturers won't sit quietly while lawmakers penalize them for seeking low-cost havens — why should they be at a competitive disadvantage on the world stage? And even positive steps won't offer the immediate help that mold makers demand.
English implies that the U.S. Trade Representative may be able to help, although that won't be with tariffs like those protecting U.S. steelmakers. He's right about the tariffs. But it's hard to believe that strong words without a credible threat of tariffs will convince overseas competitors to scale back their effort to win market share.
The clock is ticking, and the U.S. tooling industry continues to consolidate as time passes. A robust economy may be mold makers' best short-term hope — but, at this point, would you bet your life savings on it?