Like seemingly everybody in the plastics industry with an e-mail address, Bret Baumgarten gets his daily dose of online sales pitches from the far corners of the world offering low-cost molds and supplies.
It's one of the most basic ways the Internet has globalized manufacturing - the unsolicited sales call from anywhere on the planet, typically from someone in a low-cost country like China. For Baumgarten, director of sales and marketing for Hayward, Calif., molder Plastikon Industries Inc., it's far from the only one, though.
His firm uses the Skype Internet phone and video service to link its U.S. headquarters with its manufacturing joint venture in Dongguan, China, and according to Baumgarten, has gotten ``some very big customers'' who learned about the company and its Asian presence online.
Plastikon is an example of what some economists are saying could be one of the Internet's biggest impacts on business: making communication vastly easier and thereby driving an increase in global trade.
A July study by economists at the World Bank and the Washington think tank American Enterprise Institute, for example, found that as Internet penetration soared since the mid-1990s, so has world trade.
The evidence: from 1994 to 2002, trade grew from 20 percent of the world economy to 24 percent. The study, by World Bank's George Clarke and AEI's Scott Wallsten, called that a ``substantial'' shift in a short time because trade had hovered between 18 and 20 percent of worldwide GDP for the previous 15 years.
Other factors than the Internet could be at play in boosting trade, of course, but the study notes that while trade was growing, Internet penetration worldwide soared from 17 Internet hosts per 10,000 people to 231 in 2001.
That suggests that the Internet has had a longer-term impact, after the dot-com bubble burst and its get-rich-quick schemes that preached ``fundamental shifts'' in business seemed to fall by the roadside.
The conclusion on trade makes intuitive sense, given that the Internet, in effect, shortens distance from customer to supplier, said Peter Mooney, an economist and president of Plastic Custom Research Services in Advance, N.C.
``It obviously has made a tremendous difference,'' said Mooney, who compared it to consumers on a personal level using the Internet to sort through choices for buying a car or clothes.
``It's a tremendously effective way for people to find out their options,'' he said. ``That is the fundamental economic impact of the Internet.''
The Clarke and Wallsten study suggested, however, that for practical purposes the Internet is a one-way street in the business world, boosting shipments from poorer countries to richer ones, but not so much the other way.
``Our analysis suggests that Internet use may in fact help stimulate exports from poor countries to rich,'' the authors wrote.
They said their research found that developing countries with high Internet use do not export more to other poor nations, and high-income countries with strong Internet penetration do not appear to export more to either developing or developed countries, they said.
While that conclusion seems likely to spark interest among U.S. politicians and businesses concerned over China's record trade deficits with the United States, Baumgarten sees opportunities for the Web to help Plastikon's growth.
The firm's engineers on both continents, for example, use Internet video phone service to show parts they are working on in real time and to boost quality.
``You can hold [a part] up on the video, you can say, `Here's the undercut,' or, `Here's the burn mark,' '' he said.
As well, the company plans to revamp its Web site significantly, making it more interactive.
The firm plans to install a section for its customers where they can securely access up-to-date information on their projects, or buy tools typically used by much larger firms and do online surveys of those who visit the site, Baumgarten said.
``We're not so arrogant and confident to think we're the best and we can't improve,'' he said. ``What is happening for Plastikon is that because we are growing internationally, we have to start serving our customers internationally.''