China, lean manufacturing, lights-out production, high-speed milling machines, robotics, design, tighter delivery schedules ... no one ever said that the tooling business was easy. But the past few years have added pressures on top of pressures to the point that everyone is operating in a vise - and customers are tightening the screws a little more every day.
Some very strong and innovative toolmakers have been forced out of business. Others are struggling to survive. Just to keep up, companies have had to make changes to the ways they operate - trying to get ahead means moving even further out of their comfort zones. Equipment and capabilities that set apart a mold maker 10 years ago are standard procedure today, forcing firms out of one niche in search of another.
But that is nothing new, and mold makers have struggled before.
``In a lot of ways, this is no different than when a lot of these guys were getting started in the 1960s, when they all had to figure out what they did better than the guy down the street,'' said Vic Baez, sales manager for Triangle Tool Corp. of Milwaukee. ``Change is nothing to be afraid of.''
Neither does it mean that, to succeed, tool shops have to become clones of their neighbors.
Visit some of the shops that are finding new ways to compete, and you can see a range of styles and viewpoints. Comet Die & Engraving Co. in Elmhurst, Ill., still has a hand engraver on staff capable of sculpting a handmade raised logo for customers, and skilled enough to fix a minor flaw in a mold. MGS Manufacturing Group Inc. of Germantown, Wis., has fully automated cells in which computers control production, as programmed by a skilled mold maker.
There are big shops with more than 100 mold makers on staff, and small firms with fewer than 20 employees.
One similar condition at successful shops, though, is an atmosphere in which mold makers are encouraged to find new ways to do their jobs better, and owners and managers are open to those new ideas.
``Creativity is where we come up with the things that are new, that our customers want,'' said John Lau, a partner in Dynamic Tool & Design Inc. of Menomonee Falls, Wis.
There is no ``one size fits all'' solution for the industry, but there are a range of solutions for those companies that can find a niche. Some firms may not be able to find the right answer in time for a tooling industry that is continuing to contract.
But there are opportunities for those willing to try something new.
Rhoda Miel is Plastics News' Detroit-based staff reporter. Her beats include tooling and the automotive industry.