Injection molders in almost all countries of the globe imported more than $200 million worth of molds from Portugal. Why do 85 percent of all molds made in Portugal end up in the export market? What makes these molds different? Why do injection molders chose to go 3000 miles away to purchase these precision instruments?
France, Germany, Spain and the United States are major importers of molds: in 1996 alone these four countries imported $39, $30, $8 and $41 million of injection molds. Other countries importing large numbers of molds include Holland, Sweden, Belgium, Brazil and Canada.
Companies in the United States that have purchased molds in the past from Portugal will tell you that they are a significant help in assuring quality and in maintaining tight production schedules - all this without having to spend premium dollars.
It would be very difficult to explain why to buy molds in Portugal if it weren't for the fact that so many companies already do. Who buys molds from Portugal? "Name a brand name," said one mold maker in Marinha Grande - one of the two mold making areas in Portugal - "and you will find molds from Portugal."
You can find molds from Portugal in almost every major end market for plastics. Housewares and delicate medical parts or large packaging crates, complex three-component automotive parts such as tail lights or tiny parts for consumer electronics.
We find it is extraordinarily easy to work with our mold maker in Portugal," said one major U.S. molder of electronic parts. "They communicate quickly and efficiently. But most importantly, they stick to their word. They are on schedule in terms of delivery times and their service program is extraordinary."
Talking to just a small sample of mold buyers around the world shows you that Portugal is indeed a success in the competitive mold business. The export-oriented mold makers have worked hard at offering their American customers key benefits which read like the want list of any mold buyer:
- Reliable delivery schedules for new tools
- Quick and accurate mold cost quotes - often within a day or so
- Delivery of fully "debugged" molds, ready for production as soon as they arrive
- Molds which have long life-cycle and low maintenance costs
- Complete integrated design and project management services
- Access to the latest technology in mold and part design and advanced machine tools
- A price fully competitive with major sources of molds around the world
Most of Portugal's 200 mold makers are located either in Marinha Grande - some 93 miles north of Lisbon - or in Oliveira de Azemeis - just 155 miles north of Lisbon. Both areas are connected to Lisbon and Oporto by a high-speed highway that allows for quick travel. You can visit most of the plants and design offices in just two quick hours from Lisbon.
Portuguese mold making industry is one of the oldest in the world, having it's origin in making tools for glass pressing and blowing. Plastics molds have been made in Portugal as early as the first production of plastics in the 1930s.
But apart from being one of the oldest such industries, Portuguese mold makers have a solid record of being often the very firstin adapting for commercial use advanced technologies.
It was back in 1983 that a major mold maker in Portugal was the first mold making company in Europe to install CAD/CAM systems. A mold maker in Portugal was one of the first in adapting finite element analysis to plastics parts. More recently, mold makers in Portugal have been in among the first to employ Rapid Prototyping technology or in installing capital-intensive machine tools such as wire cut EDM or high-speed surface grinding machines.
Also, "because we make so many molds every year we develop new know-how more rapidly than any other supplier country." By global standards the concentration of so many mold producers in two locations is unusual. The size of the industry matters more than just the volume of production: "We have collectively the ability to adapt new technologies far faster than any other mold makers around the world."
Much of this advanced state-of-the-art is a result of Portugal joining the European Community in 1986. Some ten years later Portugal is a changed country quickly emerging as a major engineering supplier for the European Community.
Portugal's government has a major incentive for supporting this industry: over 85% of all molds made in Portugal are for the export market. "Export earnings drive any economy," said one mold maker, "in particular for a small country such as Portugal." Mold makers in Portugal today export more than $200 million/year of molds fpr more than 70 countries.
Even the casual visitor to some of Portugal's mold making plants walks away impressed by the heavy investment in advanced machine tools. Mold makers have been systematically upgrading their equipment with several objectives in mind. "We needed to be able to machine far faster than before to offer more attractive delivery times" and "we had to improve the accuracy to maintain high quality standards while speeding up production," was a typical comment.
New and advanced milling and grinding machines, EDM and wire cut EDM machines, jig grinding machines, pantographs, drilling machines, and CNC equipment of all type abounds. Most plants have invested in computerized 3-D coordinate measuring machines and profile projectors.
Mold makers in Portugal understand their role to be a full partner in the development of any new product. Typically they get involved in the early design phases of a new product and advise on manufacturing economics and specific design aspects.
With a major commitment to service - pre-sale and after-sale - more mold makers are establishing service centers and international offices in major market countries. Additionally joint mold making operations with mold makers in other countries bring Portugal's mold producers closer to the customer.
In a way being far from major markets such as Brazil or Canada, Germany or the United States has been a benefit. "It has forced us to be better communicators and to be much more dedicated towards supplying a quality product," a mold maker said.
"Without our commitment to quality," is the mantra of Portugal's mold makers, "Nobody would keep buying our tools. Most of our customers are repeat customers and have been with us for more than ten years."
"We compete with the rest of the world. We have had consistent growth in exports. You don't get this unless your quality is high, consistently high and the price is competitive."Some 11 companies have qualified under the ambitious ISO 9000 standard and an additional 20 are in the lengthy process of qualifying. "This is our most visible sign of efforts to improve quality." Several companies were qualified under this standard as early as 1992, long before most other countries even became fully aware of ISO 9002.
Another sign of quality is that practically none of the molds shipped overseas is ever returned for service and adjustment. Portugal's mold makers specialize in molds built for very long production runs and designed to operate well with the first shot. But each tool undergoes a battery of tests, checking all specifications, each function of various mold components and finally a test run on an injection molding machine.