Molder Taiwan Green Point Enterprises Co. Ltd. is like a lot of firms betting big on mainland China: The company is sinking investment in as fast as it can find the money, opening five plants there in the past two years and roughly doubling the number of employees, to 23,000.
Green Point, which claims it is the world's fourth-largest manufacturer of mobile telephone casings, certainly is following its customers - the cell phone makers that are putting manufacturing on the mainland to access China's market and to find the cheapest place to make their products.
But Green Point, which put its first plant in China in 1995 and thus far has managed to ride the ups and downs of the telecom supply chain, doesn't see its future success coming from racing to the bottom and becoming the lowest-cost subcontractor.
Instead, company executives said, they are tying their future into being early adapters of new technology.
Green Point, for example, developed technology to apply a hard coating for ultraviolet-light protection to cell phone lenses, modifying techniques used in the auto industry, said General Manager Hwai-Hai Chiang. He was interviewed March 21 at the company's Taichung headquarters.
Likewise, he said the company was the first molder to take coating technology from Dow Chemical Co.'s Inclosia Solutions unit and make it work in mass production. The technology incorporates materials like metals and fabrics into the molding process for use in decorative covers for cell phones.
``Inclosia technology was not mature at all - we are the first to make it work,'' Chiang said. ``We invested in understanding the technology, to push it to the next level so it can be mass-producible.''
The company also recently developed and patented a metallic-looking coating for plastic that's nonconductive, making it easier to give cell phones their popular metal appearance without having to apply coatings with metal fragments that can impede phone reception, he said.
The decorating technology push is a very conscious choice the firm has made.
For the first 20 years after its founding in 1979, Green Point focused on precision molding for the information technology industry.
But about five years ago, Chiang said, it began to see that mobile phones were becoming commodities, and what would differentiate them would be things like how they looked and how the keypads and user interfaces worked.
So the firm invested in decorating technologies and changed how it thinks of itself, trying to see itself not just as a molder of precision parts for the telecom industry but also as a provider of decorative parts for an appearance- and design-conscious industry.
``We are a packaging company now,'' he said. ``Our packaging includes structural components. We call it structural packaging.''
He said in five years the company could see itself more broadly as a materials processing company, rather than a plastics firm, but he declined to say if that means the company is looking at technologies outside its core plastics area.
At a time when intellectual property protection is a key concern of investors on the mainland, Green Point said it chooses not to guard its technology too zealously.
In part, that could be a reflection of business realities: Suing competitors could slow down the supply chain and risk angering customers.
But Chiang said the firm also has made a conscious choice to focus on innovation and not worry so much about whether its technology is copied. The company knows that happens, he said.
``We have patents, [but] we don't enforce them,'' Chiang said. ``Instead of wasting money in a court, we can put our energy to better use. We can focus on innovation. We don't want to be in a situation where we have one idea and say, `This is the end.' ''
The company has focused on technology since it was founded by Chairman Y.J. Lee, Chiang said.
Lee spent time working at injection molding factories in Germany in the 1970s and saw firsthand that precision, tight- tolerance molding could produce better profit returns than the simpler work that most Taiwanese companies were doing at the time, Chiang said.
But after he returned home, he was unable to persuade his Taiwanese employer to invest in the better technology, so he started his own firm, Chiang said.
Green Point maintains strong links to Germany: It has a unit that makes injection presses using technology licensed from machine maker Novapax Maschinenbau GmbH in Leer, Germany.
Green Point started the unit because it did not like the machines in the marketplace, and today it makes about 40 injection presses a month. Green Point uses about two-thirds of them internally, but the company sells the rest to other firms, Chiang said.
So far the strategies seem to be paying off for the publicly traded company, although officials said its margins are getting tighter.
Last year the firm generated sales of T$1.13 billion (US$35.2 million), with most of that coming from its Chinese operations. Chiang declined to disclose details like the number of presses, but said the firm has 500-700 worldwide and has expanded its manufacturing capacity at least 30 percent in the recent growth spurt.
Green Point also is investing at home. Its staff of 1,350 in Taiwan has never been larger, and the firm is building a site in Taichung to consolidate its five plants in the area, Chiang said.