(Nov. 7, 2008) — To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Plastics News in 2009, we continue with our weekly countdown of the Top 20 stories covering issues of lasting impact. Plastics News staff members voted on the stories. The series will end with the No. 1 story in our 20th Anniversary special edition March 16.
The series will end with the No. 1 story in our 20th Anniversary special edition March 16.
No. 18: Onslaught of Japanese Injection Molding Machines
Japanese injection presses were the hottest machinery topic when Plastics News started out in 1989. But bitter conflict trumped the trade-magazine stable of technology news.
Our very first issue, on March 6, 1989, ran this front-page headline: “U.S. machine makers mull dumping charge.” We reported that American injection molding machinery builders were considering filing a dumping charge against their Japanese competitors. That came after President George Bush (this was the first one!) had denied them import protection, through tariffs and duties on imported equipment.
Inside, two other stories updated readers on the U.S. government's three-year ban of Toshiba presses, done to punish the Japanese parent company for selling high-tech milling machines to the Soviet Union. The Russians used the equipment to make so-called “silent” propellers for submarines.
This was before NAFTA, and even before the Berlin Wall fell. China was not a major threat. Solid American companies that made well-known brands — like Cincinnati Milacron, HPM, Van Dorn, Reed, Natco and Beloit — were feeling the heat from the likes of Toshiba, Mitsubishi, JSW and others.
In many ways, the experiences of the U.S. injection molding machinery business mirrored those of U.S. automakers. Car enthusiasts discovered Japanese automobiles. Loyal Toshiba customers went through withdrawal from 1989-1991, until the ban ended and Toshiba Machine Co. America started importing machines again.
The U.S. machinery makers — just like machine tools, the car makers and other industrial sectors before them — did not take the threat of Japanese competition seriously until it started to hurt.
Some old nameplates didn't survive. Natco Inc. closed in 1990, after a failed attempt to build presses for Japan Steel Works Ltd. HPM Corp. bought the New Britain line of toggle presses in 1988. The Reed Division of Packaging Machinery Co. shut down its press-building operation in 1990.
The landscape was changed forever. Also, German machines also became a major force.
But the intense pressure from the Japanese did force some changes at surviving U.S. press manufacturers — especially the largest, Cincinnati Milacron Inc.
Milacron executives launched a strategy dubbed Wolfpack to improve quality, reduce costs and dramatically cut the time it took to develop new machines. Wolfpack became the battle cry, as Milacron fought back, proudly waving the American flag.
But the Japanese were here to stay. So were the Europeans. As the 1990s progressed, you started to hear more about the “global economy.” Today, a U.S. custom molder in New Castle, Pa., can buy a low-priced injection press built in Ningbo, China.
Plastics machinery suppliers are under tremendous pressure, as 2008 closes out. Time will tell which ones survive — and what Wolfpack-type of strategies will win out.
Bill Bregar is an Akron-based senior reporter, and one of
Bill Bregar is an Akron-based senior reporter, and one ofPlastics News' original staffers.