T.J. Donlin and Mike Donlin had heard all about how toolmaking was moving to China - about the cost savings, about how customers were demanding production from low-cost regions.
But they resisted, focusing instead on high-speed machining centers, capabilities in larger molds and additional operations such as gun drilling and texturizing to keep their family-owned Comet Die & Engraving Co. healthy.
Then a customer came to them with a new angle: Costa Rica.
The Central American country offers lower labor costs combined with a stable economy and government, a highly educated work force and something China simply does not have - location.
``It's a five-hour flight,'' Mike Donlin said in a May 15 interview at Elmhurst-based Comet. ``Costa Rica is in the same time zone as Chicago. We can fly down there on a Monday and be back here on Tuesday afternoon. You can't do that with China.''
So Comet finally made the international expansion it had fought for years. The family became partners in International Precision Molds in Alajuela, Costa Rica, near the capital of San Jose and just a few short miles from the international airport. The low cost for air freight allows the firm to have a completed mold back within a week.
While not technically a subsidiary of Comet, IPM is an integral part of the company's future and the mold maker now is quoting on tooling packages that allows it to combine the design and expertise in Elmhurst for large and complex molds, as well as cost benefits on smaller molds made in Costa Rica.
That's good for both companies. Comet recently completed a package of 22 molds - eight of them went to Costa Rica, the rest stayed in Elmhurst, along with design and development.
``Our main goal is to this company here busy and healthy,'' Donlin said.
Comet Die is not alone in looking at new options for international production, said Dave Lawrence, president of D-M-E Co., a Madison Heights, Mich.-based tooling components supplier. Some toolmakers are considering Mexico for expansion - not enough to create a trend yet, he said, but enough to show that people are expanding their view.
T.J. and Mike Donlin are the fourth generation of their family running Comet Die, which began as a Chicago engraving shop more than 100 years ago. Everyone was a little anxious about going international. The brothers were careful to make sure the firm's 65 employees knew how important it was for Comet's long-term health. T.J. Donlin wrote a company letter to lay out why Comet was making the move.
``This wasn't a snap decision,'' Mike Donlin said. ``It was that we saw business was just going and going and going, and we didn't want to be forced into doing something that we didn't want to do.''
About half of the 22 Costa Rican employees have been to Elmhurst to get to know the way Comet operates, and what it expects. The venture is important for Costa Rica as well. Its government is pushing for more development beyond the tourist and coffee industries and has targeted plastics for growth. The country's foreign affairs minister came to the shop's grand opening.
``That company down there can't survive without Comet, and we can't really survive without the Costa Rica company,'' Donlin said.