I've been to two of Asia's bigger plastics shows in the last month, in Taiwan and South Korea, and heard a lot of companies talk about manufacturing industries in both places recovering rapidly, much faster than larger cousins in Japan, North America and Europe.
Some of it could be boasting but there are some numbers to back up the banter: Korea's manufacturing industry, for example, is operating at about 80.5 percent capacity. In the United States, we're still struggling at 69 percent, well below our historic levels.
Korean and Taiwanese companies are taking a larger place in the world. Austrian injection press maker Engel Austria GmbH told me that its largest customer worldwide in recent years has been Korean consumer electronics giant Samsung Group.
Engel has a factory in Korea, and that was instrumental in building a relationship with Samsung and succeeding in Korea's close-knit business culture.
Korea's success in plastics seems to be coming on the coattails of homegrown megafirms like Samsung, LG and Hyundai, as Korea joins the world's wealthiest countries. Taiwan's industry seemed to be having its success from growth more in emerging markets like China and India.
I left both shows wondering if what I was seeing is simply Asia's newer economies emerging faster from the world recession, and those of us in America, Europe and Japan will catch up. Or was something else going on, a more permanent shift.
It was interesting to me that Engel's Robert Bodingbauer, president of the company's Korean operation and a longtime Asia plastics industry executive, seemed to have the same question.
He drew a parallel to China's situation now for plastics machinery.
China's market went dead for Engel and other high-end machinery makers in the aftermath of the financial crisis, although it's since gotten better.
For local Chinese plastics machinery firms, it wasn't as bleak. Times were tough, of course, but spurred on by China's government stimulus package and growth in other emerging markets, they seemed to sell more of their more budget-minded machines and recover faster.
The question for European, Japanese and North American firms now is, will the high-end market worldwide recover, or are the old days done?
Japan is Asia's center of top-class plastics machinery. It sold 12,600 injection presses in 2008, a fairly typical year, yet it sold fewer than 5,000 in 2009, a historic low.
As Bodingbauer describes the future: The question is, is the shift going from the high end, Japan and Europe [and] will the
high end be cut in half, and the low end go up, or will it go back to the same levels of the high end [before the crisis] and the low end grows because the world grows?
He's not sure. He sees reasons the high end could recover, but he's not sure.
Engel's Korea factory has returned to strong growth now, as Korea's high-tech molding industry does well.
There's also a potential silver lining for high-end firms, he believes, in the quality scandal at automaker Toyota Motor Corp. It could help shift decisions about equipment buying at many companies back to quality and factory managers, and reduce the strong influence of purchasing departments over the last decade, he said.
On the other side, though, Bodingbauer notes that more Engel customers, especially in China, are now willing to trial machines from Chinese competitors, something not seen much before.
Personally, I'd of course like to see Bodingbauer's second scenario, the high-end markets come roaring back. I just wish my own crystal ball wasn't so cloudy.
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