Portugal's long-established plastics mold-making industry is busy with work and realizing a sharp rise in product exports, mostly to new and emerging markets, from its efforts a few years ago to retool itself.
Four years ago the sector's local leaders founded the private, nonprofit Pool-Net Association — Portuguese Tooling Network (www.toolingportugal.com) — to manage the Portuguese Engineering & Tooling Cluster, which the nation's government recognized as a legal entity in October 2008. The aim: to drive innovation and coordinate firms in the manufacturing supply chain that are engaged in industrial design, engineering and product development, prototyping, tooling, and plastic and metal parts production.
Heavily dependent on the up-and-down automotive industry, Portugal's tooling and engineering firms tapped into this initiative also to broaden their focus to promising sectors beyond automotive — particularly aeronautics, health care and medical devices, energy and environment, electronics and packaging.
Four years into a 10-year plan that was developed in close coordination with the Portuguese Ministry of Economy and Innovation, Pool-Net's more-integrated approach is having the desired effect, according to Rui Tocha, the group's general manager.
Interviewed Oct. 1 — on the first day of a four-day international “Moulds Event” in Marinha Grande, Portugal's tooling capital — Tocha said tooling exports grew by 15 percent in 2011 from the previous year, despite the small, southwestern Europe nation's well-documented economic woes. This is particularly vital for an industry that on average exports more than 90 percent of its national production.
Tocha noted that while Portugal has seen tooling exports dip to some of its traditional, more-mature markets in Western Europe, it also has been able to pick up the slack for some Western Europe neighbors that have seen their internal mold-making capacity dwindle during the recession.
“During the last years our industry recovered some of their ancient clients that tried other markets, namely Asian countries,” he explained.
Exports in 2011 to France and Spain, for example, increased by 50 percent and 16 percent, respectively, in value terms. And at the same time, Tocha said the Portuguese tooling industry — which has remained fairly constant at about 800 companies — has made good inroads into emerging markets thanks to new technologies, new methods of manufacture and especially a strong investment in promotion of its end-to-end capabilities, from design to production.
On top of that, Tocha claims, the value of exports for the first half of 2012 exceeds the year-ago period by 100 million euros (about $129 million at current exchange rates), representing an increase of 40 percent over the improved performance in 2011.
“Companies are busy with work,” he said. Overall, “exports to Europe are decreasing, but growth is way up to emerging markets.”
He specifically mentioned South America, Asia and Eastern Europe. For example, the value of exports last year compared with 2010 soared 80 percent to Brazil, 50 percent to Poland and more than doubled to Czech Republic (albeit from a low base).
Pool-Net now has 70 members, with about three-quarters of those being tooling or plastics processing firms. Universities, training bodies, and research and technology centers also are members, and they tend to interact on an almost-daily basis with the industry members, he said. The core organizations that provide a foundation for Pool-Net are: Cefamol, the Portuguese mold industry association; Centimfe, the Portuguese technological center for the mold-making, special tooling and plastics industry; and Open, a relatively new business innovation center.
And they have a long, storied history from which to draw. Portugal's mold-making industry began in the 18th century when Marinha Grande and Oliveira de Azeméis, two towns less than 80 miles apart in the central-west part of the country, grew into important glass-making centers. Mold making for glass evolved into mold making for plastics in the 1940s, and today one would be hard-pressed to find cities with a higher per-capita concentration of mold-making shops anywhere in the world.
“We made the right choice in 2008,” Tocha said, referencing the decision for Pool-Net to focus on three strategic pillars: promote the cluster internationally; invest in innovative technologies; and encourage companies to reorganize themselves to boost productivity and increase their participation in cooperative networks, such as the European Tooling Platform.
On the second point, Tocha said the industry has invested more than 100 million euros in the past three years. He said the vast majority of that investment has been private money. The government has contributed some subsidies, but such funds do need to be repaid by the industry.
Other strategies included focusing on highly specialized sectors, high-complexity products or those markets with high barriers to entry, as well as on early-stage market niches or products, in an effort to gain a foothold before competition proliferates.
Tocha noted that Portugal, despite a record-high unemployment rate that now exceeds 15 percent, faces skilled-workforce shortages similar to those being seen by U.S. manufacturers. That is one reason training and qualification of personnel form another key plank in Pool-Net's platform.
“It's also a problem here in Portugal. It's difficult to keep them here. Many engineers are leaving for Germany, France, Spain,” Tocha said. One response by the Engineering & Tooling Cluster has been to step up efforts for its long-running “Pense Indústria,” or “Think Industry” project. That program, begun in 1995, brings hundreds of teenage students each year into technical sites such as Centimfe to give them hands-on experience working with such tools as computer numerically controlled lathes and milling machines, interacting with manufacturing software and even engaging them in their own small projects.
The push toward greater collaboration also has driven the cluster to solicit more involvement from industrial designers at the front end of the product-development process. Day one of Moulds Week was Rapid Product Development 2012, an English-language conference focusing on the design and execution of real-life items such as medical devices and consumer products.
One of the exhibit booths in the conference room was staffed by industrial designer Gonçalo Silva, an entrepreneur who was displaying some of his large, colorful, wave-shaped products that can serve both as outdoor seating and as lockable stands for bicycles and surfboards. Branded as Perfect Wave, the hollow, high density polyethylene products are rotational molded in Portugal by Otto Multiservei of Alhos Vedros. Silva, who also is busy designing other products such as skateboard ramps, embodied Pool-Net's mission to embrace the entire supply chain as a means of driving forward Portugal's tooling industry.