Twenty years ago, nearly 1,200 shoe manufacturing companies held factories in LeÃ³n, Mexico. Half tha number exist today.
However, survivors rely heavily on the city's blow and injection molders to develop their range of models, good news for the plastics industry. Plastics processors in the area also serve a growing number of other manufacturers, including automakers, which have built plants in Mexico to serve the North America Free Trade Agreement region. LeÃ³n lies about 270 miles northwest of Mexico City.
Some 400 plastics processors operate in the state of Guanajuato, of which LeÃ³n is the capital, said RamÃ³n Valera Rodríguez, vice president at the LeÃ³n branch of Canacintra, a national manufacturing association.
``Seventy percent of these 400 companies are focused on products, such as soles, related to shoes,'' he said. ``Most of them are injection molders.''
The rest include auto parts makers, and custom molders serving cereal, textiles and chemical producers, among others.
General Motors Corp. has a sport utility vehicle plant in the nearby town of Silao, where it assembles the Cadillac Escalade, Chevrolet Avalanche and Silverado and GMC Sierra and Yukon.
Valera estimates Guanajuato's processors employ 8,000 workers directly, some of them highly skilled thanks to a training scheme for plastics industry workers launched by Canacintra in 2005.
In Guanajuato, Canacintra set up a seven-man committee to investigate the best way of normalizing and certifying plastics processing.
The committee, comprising four plastics industry engineers, two academics and an independent consultant, designed a course for injection molding machine operators that started at the Technological University of LeÃ³n in the fall of 2005.
Dozens of operators since have taken the course, said Valera, who also operates an injection molding company that manufactures parts for electrical coils and employs 40.
Valera said the plastics sector in LeÃ³n and nearby locations is stable, despite the increased competitive pressure from countries such as China and Brazil.
``There are many opportunities for the industry today and there will be more in the future,'' he said. ``But we have to work very hard, especially on improving quality. We've been working on this a great deal.''
As for the plastics industry's relationship with the shoe industry, Valera believes the footwear companies' manufacturing processes have evolved.
``They used to use PVC for the soles. About 10 or 15 years ago they started using rubber thermal plastic, which replaced leather. Some companies even use polyurethane soles today,'' he said.