The readers of this publication have been well-informed of the hardships facing the plastics industry in this country. Though perspective of the magnitude of the problem may vary depending on one's position — a mold maker in Michigan may feel differently about the issue of global competition than a processor in South Carolina — the fact remains that plastics companies are struggling to stay competitive in the increasingly cutthroat glo-bal marketplace.
SPI's new global trade report shows that the U.S. plastics industry had a $14 billion trade deficit in 2002 when you take into account plastics that are contained in other goods. More than half that — some $7.6 billion — could be attributed to China. The report cites the high dollar, soaring natural gas costs and the movement of manufacturing activity to Asia as the principal reasons for the deterioration in the plastics products trade. Coupled with the overall high costs of doing business in the United States (employee health-care benefits, workers' comp expenses, regulatory compliance costs and so forth), plastics companies in this country seem to be at a perpetual disadvantage to overseas competitors.
SPI continues to work diligently to build awareness of the impact that the plastics industry has on the U.S. economy as a whole and to bring attention to the challenges facing plastics companies.
The association's efforts to ensure the global competitiveness of the U.S. plastics industry include the Plastics Manufacturing Matters! petition that was delivered to Congress this month, as well as events focusing on global competitiveness issues, such as the well-attended NPE 2003 event, “The China Factor” and the “China Fly-In” in Washington last spring.
Aside from making a lot of noise about our industry's problems and fighting for free and fair trade policies, is there a quick-fix solution to the challenges facing U.S. plastics companies? That remains to be seen, but in order to regain a competitive edge in the market, the plastics industry as a whole must work actively and aggressively toward a solution.
In seeking answers, one area in which American companies can build on our fundamental strength is in the advancement of our workforce. At SPI, we believe that the development of a skilled and knowledgeable workforce is the foundation of a competitive industry, and we have made significant investments of our members' resources during the last decade to help build a skilled plastics workforce in this country.
Our commitment to the development of the industry's employees and to industry competitiveness has not and will not waiver. We will continue to invest in programming to elevate the competitiveness of our members.
As part of this ongoing effort, SPI's Southern Region recently joined forces with the renowned University of Kentucky College of Engineering, Center for Robotics and Manufacturing, to produce a year-long series focused on process improvements across organizations. Aimed at giving plastics companies the tools they need not just to survive but to thrive in the global market, the series will feature experts from the university and throughout the industry and will examine process improvement practices in manufacturing, automation, sales and marketing, and human capital development.
Ultimately, the competitiveness of the U.S. plastics industry will be demonstrated in the eyes of the customer and on the manufacturing floor. Thus the onus for change is on the industry itself.
If the proverb is right, the squeaky wheel may indeed get the grease, but it is imperative for the industry to work actively and collectively to realize a competitive edge in the new world market.
For its part, SPI will continue to work on behalf of the industry to press our elected officials to implement trade policies that level the playing field. We also will continue to provide practical tools and programs for plastics companies to realize a competitive edge.
Richard Sturgis is the Greenville, S.C.-based director of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s South Region.