Canadian Plastics

Automate to checkmate China

The future of our industry looks bright if judged by the capabilities available to Canadian processors, especially injection molders, at this year's Plast-Ex show. It has never been possible before to...

June 1, 2007   By Jim Anderton



The future of our industry looks bright if judged by the capabilities available to Canadian processors, especially injection molders, at this year’s Plast-Ex show. It has never been possible before to trade dollars for out-of-the-box performance, from resin, press and press-side automation to smart auxiliaries. However, the inevitability of the East — specifically China — continues to loom large.

There are of course, two industries: the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan). With the latter, I saw an apparently well-made medium tonnage press going for bargain prices, which made me wonder how well the residual value for used equipment of all makes will hold up. The real threat however, is the increasing sophistication of the former, as more and more Chinese processors step up to ISO and QS-type molding at production levels that make them attractive to the big OEMs.

The threat would be ominous, if it was true. But the challenge of China is getting weaker, not stronger moving forward over the next decade. Here’s why:

1. Labour will decrease as a relative input cost over time. Anyone who saw the precision and speed of some of the post-mold and in-mold assembly robotics at Plast-Ex caught a glimpse of the future of production molding. With true “lights-out” production from machines shooting multiple materials and colours accompanied by assembling robotics, where’s the advantage of cheap labour?

2. It’s a just-in-time future. With most manufacturing processes, automotive and appliance OEMs lead the way, but everybody buys in eventually. SPC and ISO certification are examples, and watch for just-in-time to follow. Wal-Mart is another leader in this area, meaning vendors can’t gamble on a typhoon delaying a container ship. They’ll have to carry inventory, while local producers can run lean and mean. And that leads to the wild card…

3. Kyoto plays into our hands. 2007 is the year of global warming, and although we won’t meet our Kyoto CO2 targets, we’re going to have to do something about greenhouse gases. In relative terms, China, already a huge emitter, will become proportionally bigger part of the problem. They’ll argue that they should get a “pass” because of a lack of advanced technology, and that they deserve the same shot at industrialization that the Western world enjoyed for a couple of centuries. Both are good points, but we have a case for duties on imported Chinese products on environmental grounds to level the playing field if our processors have to bear carbon costs. With the UN squarely behind Kyoto, I doubt the WTO would rule against it. Of course, you’d need a less cynical and more patriotic government in Ottawa, and I don’t see a party or a leader in that city that has the courage to do the right thing when it comes to the manufacturing sector, so this one is theoretical for now.

The potential losers may be the medium run job shops that do a lot of changeovers but run high tonnage multi-cavity machines. Robots are expensive and it’s hard to get mold owners to use quick-change technology, at least for now. They’ll have to add value some other way, perhaps with leading edge quality systems or very flexible operations that react quickly and maybe automatically to their customers’ volume requirements.

The processing community can make money going forward I think, but the age of the garage tinkerer shooting swizzle sticks is gone. I miss it, but as I once told a show attendee who noted that cars were better thirty years ago with less plastic, nobody would want a 1977 model heart pacemaker. Things are better now, that’s for sure.


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