Three years ago, Unique Tool & Gauge Inc. was invited to join other toolmakers at a meeting with Honda of America Manufacturing Inc.
The carmaker told mold makers it was looking for a few good companies it could establish long-term partnerships with - companies that could bring new insights and expertise to Honda, while also benefiting from increased business with the automaker.
Darcy King, vice president of sales and engineering for family-owned Unique Tool, said he can remember looking around at all the other firms in the room, and thinking that it would be amazing if Unique somehow could be the last business standing.
Now the 70-employee firm is one of two injection mold toolmakers that are part of Honda's co-management business - along with Rapid Die & Engineering Inc. of Grand Rapids, Mich. And he is seeing the benefits that Honda promised.
``We've been saying for years, give us a voice and we can help you,'' he said. ``They gave us a voice.''
The co-management system with the North American manufacturing branch of Tokyo-based Honda Motor Co. Ltd. was not just some happy coincidence, King noted.
Unique Tool already had a specific, long-term strategy for growth with Asian automakers, and has invested in technology and capabilities to help it compete on any job.
``They weren't just looking for the biggest companies or the smallest companies,'' said Unique Tool President Robert King. ``They wanted somebody with an ideology that matched what they were doing. It gets back to finding the fit and the product profile that they're looking for.''
Rapid Die has been a supplier to Honda for more than 10 years, and helped the automaker find the bugs in a new design and engineering software version before Honda even launched the program, said Rapid Die President Chris Jones.
The 85-employee company first opened near Detroit in 1946. The Jones family has owned Rapid Die since the 1970s.
King started Unique Tool more than 20 years ago. The firm did most of its business with the auto industry. He has had Honda as a customer for nearly a decade, he said.
During that same time, mold makers working with the auto industry have had to keep up with a series of changes.
Automakers looking for ways to cut costs have eliminated much of their in-house plastics expertise. That means molders and mold makers have had to take on more design and engineering.
Customers also have demanded faster product development time, requiring mold makers to reduce production cycles to weeks rather than months.
And competition from low-cost countries has forced toolmakers to tweak their own operations, bringing in more automation while using skilled labor strategically.
``You have to be aggressive and plan,'' King said.
Unique adjusted to meet the changes and provide North American automakers with the tools they needed, but at the same time put extensive effort into proving its abilities to Asian carmakers.
``Relationships don't just happen,'' Darcy King said. ``You have to commit yourself, and commit every aspect of your business, not just your sales team.''
The company has added two carbon cutting machines capable of working on a lights-out basis - but Unique also has skilled workers who can handle the delicate hand-finishing of tools.
The company learned how to bring more engineering in-house and invested in software and design, while also working closely with customers to smooth new product launches.
Rapid Die, meanwhile, has invested in new equipment and an 8,600-square-foot expansion that has boosted its production speed, Jones said.
Having a long-term commitment from Honda helped to support the decision to invest, he said, but the toolmaker still must deliver on price and quality standards continually. No one gets a free ride.
But there are other long-term benefits beyond a contract. The carmaker helped Unique streamline its production and even fine-tune its business plan. Improvements like those that will support the toolmakers and their entire range of customers, not just Honda, King said.
``Some of our best customers - even outside of [Honda] - are the ones that listen,'' King said.