When Rapid Granulator AB first came to China in 2003, the firm thought it could cover most demands from the local market with older machines and technology.
“But we couldn't make any headway,” said Bengt Rimark, global marketing director for Rapid Group, in an interview at Chinaplas, held April 18-21 in Shanghai.
So Bredaryd, Sweden-based Rapid shifted its focus and spent the last three years building its capabilities and offerings in China, where it now makes its full suite of products. It has seen increased sales not just from international firms with operations in Asia but also domestic molders looking for the same capabilities as any other business.
“The direction is definitely on growth for automation,” Rimark said.
The same is true for companies supplying a range of auxiliary products, from central material-handling systems to hot-runner controls, toolmaking improvements and robotics.
Domestic Chinese companies are increasingly investing in top-of-the-line systems. Conair Group sold six central material-handling systems to international companies in China in the first three months of 2012, and six to domestic molders, producing parts solely for domestic consumption.
“They're all trying to drive profitability within the company, same as anywhere else,” said Larry Doyle, vice president of global sales and marketing for Conair, based in Cranberry Township, Pa.
Hot-runner system maker Incoe Corp., based in Troy, Mich., saw its sales double in China in 2011 compared to 2010, with domestic molders looking for a range of improved production systems.
“Everybody wants everything,” said Bob Meng, Incoe's general manager in China.
Companies that came to China originally to serve their global customers are hearing from more and more local firms that demand the same service and quality. Consumers want the same quality products as they could buy elsewhere, while rising resin prices prompt molders to find ways to reduce scrap and lost materials.
Incoe expects its new SoftGate molding process — which helps molders improve material flow and reduce flaws in large parts — will be just as important to the auto market in China as it will in the United States, said Bob Hoff, president and chief operating officer. It is marketing the technology in China through the same benefits for improved efficiency and reduced scrap rates as in any other market.
Auxiliary maker AEC Inc. of Schaumburg, Ill., is stressing energy efficiency in its drying systems to help its customers in the region control production costs.
And although labor costs in China remain low compared to the U.S. and Europe, they are still rising and that prompts more investments in robotics and automation, said Matthew McCabe, an international key account manager with Wittmann Battenfeld Inc.
“Automation is growing so quickly here,” McCabe said. “All the market issues that are out there [internationally] are here in China.”
Auxiliaries makers are fine-tuning their equipment to specific needs in China, however. Torrington, Conn.-based Wittmann Battenfeld developed an Aton dryer specifically for the high-humidity issues that plague molders in south and Southeast Asia, he noted, while robots built by the company in Shanghai offer dual-arm systems to meet a more typical machine layout and customer need in China.
Conair took full ownership of a former joint venture in China last year and now makes its full line of auxiliary equipment there. The move gives the company more freedom to expand and adjust production as the market grows in Asia, Doyle said.
Rapid, likewise, has boosted its production in Asia, making everything for its products except the motor and other key internal parts. Those are made in Sweden — the same manufacturing procedure at every Rapid facility Rimark said.
The investments in auxiliary technology available from international suppliers also are important for domestic Chinese firms looking at expanding their own production elsewhere in Asia as well as in Europe, North America and South America, Incoe's Meng said. “A lot of companies in China are now looking to other countries,” he said. “The domestic brands have been missing that international access.”