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May 27, 2002

3 Min Read
Editorial:  It's the mold, stupid


Jeff Sloan

The politically attentive among you will recognize the roots of the above headline. In its original form ("It's the economy, stupid") it served as mantra and campaign motto for former President Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential run. The goal, of course, was to focus the political discourse of the campaign against President George Bush (the elder) on the then-dismal state of the national economy.

This phrase, or at least the spirit of the phrase, leapt to mind when I got a phone call from John Kacalieff, president of Chris Kaye Plastics, an injection molder based in St. Louis, MO. John was looking for some moldmaking experts to help him assess the value of his molds. Chris Kaye Plastics had recently suffered a fire, one that damaged some 500 tools. John turned to his insurer for the money needed to refurbish the molds. Not surprisingly?as such firms are wont to do?the insurer resisted. "The insurance company wants me to prove that these molds have value," John said. (For the whole story, check out this article.)

For those unfamiliar with the injection molding industry, recognizing the inherent value of a mold is understandably difficult. We are a judge-by-appearance society, and to the uneducated eye of a layperson, a mold is a not-so-glamorous hunk of steel. What's more, while the material costs associated with a mold are substantial, it's the cost of labor, craftsmanship, and skill that makes a tool such a valuable part of the molding process?none of which is apparent to the unwashed public (including insurance agents).

Unfortunately, this societal underappreciation for the mold spills over easily into the injection molding community itself. Such "infections" are most apparent at the purchasing agent level where, thanks to pressure from OEM executives to save money, price (not cost) generally decides which moldmakers win and lose when it comes to awarding jobs. This is, of course, not new, but it's no less frustrating. After all, the mold, however aesthetically challenged, is the heart of the injection molding process; it is the one piece of equipment upon which most other machinery functions and acts.

This ill-informed view of the tool, combined with our ongoing recession in manufacturing, exacerbates the trends already under way: loss of moldmaking jobs overseas; demands for discounts; demands for faster turnaround; and payment delays. This problem is most acutely represented by China, where tariffs make the import of U.S.-made tools prohibitively expensive, and low-cost labor makes molds constructed there impossibly inexpensive.

Prompted by this inequity, the moldmaking industry has asked the International Trade Commission (ITC) to initiate a Section 332?basically a fact-finding exercise to collect data that characterize the state of trade within the moldmaking industry. Once collected (the ITC hearing was held May 21) the data may be used by the government to justify a trade action of some sort to help level the playing field. Such action could include antidumping regulations, countervailing duties, a WTO agreement, a Section 337 (unfair competition), a Section 301 (treaty violations), or nothing.

The governmental attention is nice, and help of some sort would be much appreciated, but whatever the outcome, one can't help but feel that the large, global market forces at work must be met by more than the blunt sword of protectionism. The threat to the U.S. moldmaking industry demands a paradigm shift of its members; preservation of the self and industry are at stake. Big changes are in store and in demand.

But don't take my word for it. Tell us what you think. My e-mail address is below.

P.S. Thanks to a clerical error involving my Palm Pilot, in the April issue on this page I gave you the wrong dates for NPE 2003. The correct dates are June 23-27. Please make a note of it. 

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