Friedrichshafen, Germany — The new head of one of China's largest export-oriented mold makers, TK Mold (Shenzhen) Ltd., is looking to Europe to help train the next generation of Chinese toolmakers.
Joerg Wehling, who took over as general manager of TK Mold earlier this year, said he's very interested in TK joining an apprenticeship program that Austrian plastics machinery firm Engel Holding GmbH and several others started in Shanghai in 2013.
Engel and its partners transplanted the intensive Austrian and German four-year apprentice training program to their China factories and saw their first class of graduates finish this year.
"I like this program; I think this is the future for Chinese mold making," Wehling said at Fakuma. "We need mold makers in China, definitely, educated mold makers."
The push for training is partly a response to China's rising costs, he said, which are forcing companies like TK to automate and upgrade to maintain global competitiveness.
TK Mold is part of TK Group (Holdings) Ltd., a large injection molding company that has factories in China and is publicly listed in the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. TK Group has about 3,500 employees and HK$1.62 billion (US$205 million) in sales last year.
Wehling said he's talking with Engel and its other partners in the Shanghai program, plastic packaging firm Alpla-Werke Alwin Lehner GmbH & Co. KG and connector solutions company Odu GmbH & Co. KG.
He hopes TK could start participating with them next year. China's large mold making industry needs employees with a broader set of skills, he said.
"These will be the toolroom managers in China — let's say for the next decade, in my opinion — because these people have this deep knowledge," Wehling said. "They know about steel, they know about manufacturing, they know about design.
"This is the perfect toolroom manager for the future," he said.
TK Mold's sales rose 5.5 percent in the first half of 2017 to HK$306.1 million (US$39.2 million), as the group has tried to expand into ultra-large molds for the automotive industry, the company said in an August filing to the Hong Kong stock market.
"The competition in China is getting stronger and stronger," he said. "That's why we have to choose the right strategy for the future."
Wehling said that strategy includes pushing into other markets demanding precision mold making, particularly medical and packaging.
"My plan, and the plan as well of the board members, is to increase our share in packaging and medical," he said. "These are the most growing businesses in the future."
He said more than 90 percent of TK Mold's business is export-oriented, so the firm also wants to develop more business within China.
But rather than target domestic Chinese companies, he said TK will focus on global brand companies like Danone that also sell a lot within China.
"They want to have a local mold maker there who is doing the molds for them for their local production," Wehling said.
He also said the company has a long-term goal, over the next five years, of setting up a mold making shop in North America, similar to its purchase of Braunschweig, Germany-based toolshop Selig & Böttcher GmbH & Co. KG in 2014.
Wehling joined TK Mold, which has previously hired Europeans in executive roles, after working for Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. and Austrian mold maker KTW Group, which was purchased by Husky in 2011. At those companies, he said he had sales and project responsibilities for Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.