It has gotten so that Martin Cass doesn't even like to read about the industry.
When he does, he never hears any good news about manufacturing or about his business of mold making. You'd think toolmakers were getting creamed left and right, Cass said.
Cass' company, blow mold maker Fremont Plastic Molds, had one of its best years in 2002. He could not hire enough people to fill the new openings. He was relieved to have completed an expansion in 2000 that almost doubled the size of his Fremont plant.
His company even was handed a regional award by accounting firm Ernst & Young in 2002 as Entrepreneur of the Year. With annual sales of just over $10 million, his shop won over some larger, formidable companies.
``We were driving forward so hard last year that I didn't pay attention to the bad news,'' Cass said. ``If I didn't read the newspaper, I'd think the country was in a huge boom right now.''
Believe it or not, there is good news for toolmakers in North America. Despite the very real problems that have picked apart the carcasses of some mold shops, others are doing more than merely surviving the vultures. They are thriving, due in large part to major changes they have made in technology and processes.
``When you talk to companies, more often than not, you hear something positive,'' said Bruce Braker, president of the Tooling & Manufacturing Association, a group of Chicago-area mold makers based in Park Ridge, Ill. ``Maybe that's because those who were saying negative things are no longer around.''
Braker has felt that pain firsthand. In the past 26 months, his association has lost 330 member companies. About half of those went out of business, he said.
Some of the remaining mold shops - and those include more than 1,500 alone in Chicagoland - have taken steps to counter the lingering slump. A few of them have done more than patch holes; they actually are turning their businesses on a dime to find ways to make money.
That should not come as a surprise to anyone who knows U.S. history, said Len Graham, director of tooling engineering for Tech Group Inc. of Scottsdale, Ariz.
``As much as we'd like to say we can go to sleep and the world will be fine when we wake up, it won't,'' he said. ``But through all this, we're Americans. We figure out how to make it right, and we're not going to roll over and give in.''
Summoning patriotic spirit is not enough to ward off overseas competition or price pressures or careening sales.
But change seems to help. And believe it or not, some U.S. tooling companies still are making money.
Lean vs. lazy
Three years ago, cost containment and flexibility were idle words, said Fremont project manager Bill Raubenolt, a former computer salesman who now works with large Fremont accounts. Work was flowing into shops. Toolmakers could afford to be fat.
Now, the tooling industry has turned into a Frankenstein monster, he said. Tool shops have dropped prices 10-20 percent just to keep the business. To compete, shops have to build some tools in as little as four weeks' time and offer the same quality, he said.
``We were lazy before,'' Raubenolt said. ``We never dreamed what we'd have to go through today, even two years ago. Now all that has changed.''
Fremont has built a computer-based business around the drive to change. Today, the company has few workers on the plant floor, and the ones there spend time at a bank of computers plugging in numbers and monitoring machines.
Work has shifted to product development. Where before five people worked in a cramped design room, now 20 people sit in cubicles.
The locus of change at Fremont has been its own brand of software, called e.trak. The system allows for end-to-end project scheduling, reports, design work, product photos, job tracking, quoting and the administration of details online, Cass said. The software has been in use for about a year and has become the link to productivity and cost cutting.
The system was developed over a two-year period, much of it by new graduates who wanted to enter tooling but did not want to spend their days pulling a crank on a Bridgeport mill, Cass said. The new generation of workers would rather program computers than cut metal chips, he said.
The system is not cheap to operate, said Fremont controller Bryan Barshel; each upgrade costs $50,000-$100,000. But the cost savings have more than made up for the new, personal-computer society at Fremont, he said.
``We own a lot of our own software,'' Barshel said. ``It's not a file, hacksaw and hammer that take our investment dollars.''
There are subtle changes at Fremont besides e.trak, which won a recent e-business award. The company has shifted to seven days a week of work, Cass said. Instead of paying double for workers to come in for a big project on a weekend, the company has devoted itself to shorter work hours and more days of operation, he said.
That switch has added profit to jobs at little added cost, he said. ``You can't turn all the machines off and let the sparrows take over the building on Sunday,'' Cass said.
Meanwhile, Fremont has put money back, spending about $8 million during the past two years on high-speed milling machines and other automated equipment. Fremont has become the flagship shop of parent Midwest Tooling Group, the Chagrin Falls, Ohio, holding firm that owns three mold shops.
In contrast, another Midwest Tooling shop, Crown Mold & Machine, has struggled after losing much of its appliance business when the work went offshore, said Midwest President and Chief Executive Officer Michael Adams. Crown was forced to move last year from its plant in Streetsboro, Ohio, to a facility used by another Midwest Tooling company in Auburn, Ohio.
Some of Fremont's blow mold competitors, including now-defunct Hobson Mould Works Inc. of Shell Rock, Iowa, are gone or struggling, Cass added. But Fremont has managed to change its workplace and move forward.
That mind-set is a prerequisite for doing battle with the rest of the world, said John Hilbert, president of tool shop Reddog Industries Inc. of Erie, Pa. That large shop, with 165 employees, has counteracted lower profit margins with a reduction in overtime. The company opened a second shop in Erie to focus strictly on tool building without the overhead costs of the headquarters plant, he said.
``When life was good, we didn't give a second thought to some of this,'' he said. ``Now, we need to invest in a better mousetrap, in more efficient ways of doing business.''