By Liz Stevens, contributing writer
The American Mold Builder
What does 2020 look like for the US economy, American companies and, especially, the mold builders that support the nation’s manufacturing sector? The big picture predictions and on-the-ground feedback for the year reveal optimism and growth.
In survey results released by the National Association for Business Economics (NABE) and cited by CNN1, respondents expected the nation’s economy to grow by between 1.1% and 3% in 2020. The survey’s nearly 100 participants indicated that businesses are feeling confident about the economy and that recession fears have taken a back seat.
The surveyed economists reported a jump in expectations for job growth, even while the US unemployment rate has reached its lowest point in 50 years and available jobs outnumber the pool of job seekers. The NABE survey found that while a majority of businesses, overall, felt unaffected by 2019’s trade tariffs, the majority of manufacturing, mining and farming companies reported that tariffs had raised costs and lowered sales.
Business Wire2 echoes the NABE survey’s tempered optimism. Citing the Business Outlook Report, based on a survey of more than 750 business leaders by accounting and consulting firm LBMC, Business Wire wrote that 83% of survey respondents anticipated growth in 2020. This group reported a strong focus during the coming year on business intelligence, digital transformation and talent development.
These businesses further indicated that, unlike 2019’s push to expand to new locations and penetrate new markets, 2020 will see companies investing to improve productivity and efficiency. Among the group’s business goals, the search for, development of and retention of employees was a top priority. Leveraging technology also was a key goal, along with increasing sales and improving products and services.
The American Mold Builder talked with three AMBA members to get perspectives on their current situations, and the opportunities and challenges they see arising in 2020.
Jonathan Buss, president of Buss Precision Mold Inc., in Clackamas, Oregon, shared his view based on experience running a design and manufacture firm that creates plastic injection molds for the medical, scientific, industrial, ITAR military and irrigation sectors.
Donna Pursell, chief executive officer of Prestige Mold Inc., Rancho Cucamonga, California, weighed in to share her thoughts as the leader of both a moldmaking facility and an injection molding facility that primarily serve the medical industry and the technical field.
And Darrin Schmitt, president of Prodigy Mold & Tool in Haubstadt, Indiana, gave us his thoughts as a supplier of plastic injection molds and tooling for medical, motion control (gears, worms), safety products, automotive and consumer goods.
The AMBA members echoed the optimism reported by CNN and Business Wire. For Buss Precision Mold’s Jonathan Buss, business is good. “Last year was one of our two best years since 1988 when we started in business,” said Buss. “Plans are being made for expansion and upgrading of equipment.”
Donna Pursell reported similar feelings. “Last year was another record year for us,” she said. “This year has started off very strong, and we have seen a big uptick in our quoting activity.”
Prodigy Mold’s Darrin Schmitt’s take was a little more tempered. “I’m pleased with the progress our company is making, but it’s not easy,” said Schmidt. “Training a younger-generation workforce and competing in a highly competitive market – including overseas – is certainly presenting its own set of unique challenges.”
Trade tariffs and foreign actors
Like many manufacturers, both Buss and Schmitt keep an eye on the international scene, including trade tariffs and working with foreign suppliers. Schmitt cited uncertainty in the marketplace due to the unsettled trade deal with China as a challenge that his company will face in 2020.
Buss noted that concern over intellectual property theft by foreigners is a reality. He has seen that anxiety, along with instances of actual theft by the Chinese, prompt customers to avoid outsourcing to China and to remain cautious even with onshore manufacturing.
Winning new business and increasing sales ranks as a big opportunity in 2020. Buss put it this way: “Our biggest opportunity will be continuing to add customers who value IP protection, quality and customer service for their mold building needs.”
For Pursell’s company the new year is an exciting time, and she cited a good amount of new prospective customer interest on the molding operation side. “Our biggest opportunity for growth is our expansion of both companies,” said Pursell as she described her company’s in-progress construction of a new molding facility and the expansion of its moldmaking facility. “With the continued synergy of the two companies, we will continue to be able to manage projects through the entire process for our customers – from mold design and build through final plastic part production.”
Schmitt was equally enthusiastic about new business and sales growth this year. “I really think this could be a good year,” he said. “We are making a lot of progress gaining new clients and market share. We added our first 5-axis mill recently, and it’s opening up opportunities.”
Just as the NABE survey respondents signaled a focus on technology in 2020, moldmakers are keenly aware of advancements, including evaluating their impact on market segments and considering how to leverage knowledge of the most captivating technologies to a company’s advantage.
At Prestige Mold, Pursell uses cutting edge technology in service of supporting the latest methods in the medical field – designing for labware, surgical products and diagnostics – and in the technology sector – with items such as mice, security cameras and memory storage.
Prodigy Mold and Tool counts the automotive industry among its main market sectors. Schmitt noted that the emergence of autonomous and electric vehicles poses a challenge for his company in 2020, primarily because of the unsettled future for these new technologies. “I believe most of the industry still is trying to figure out which way to go and who’s going to do what,” he said. “The uncertainty and lack of decisions are making the short-term outlook fuzzy, but I believe the long term looks good with additional vehicle platforms.”
Talent recruitment and development
Jonathan Buss is leveraging technology – specifically robotics – in an interesting way; his company reaches out to local robotics clubs as sources of new apprentices to the moldmaking trade. “Our biggest challenge [in 2020] is finding and training apprentice and design candidates with an aptitude for moldmaking,” he said.
With a total crew count of 14, Buss Precision Mold is not heavily into robotics, but it does have CNC machines. Buss described two aspects of moldmaking that he says appeal to robotics devotees: CNC cutting tool automation and the satisfaction of imagining, designing and then building something.
Robotics builders, said Buss, “typically are making parts for robot competitions on cutting tools such as lathes, milling machines, grinders, welders and sometimes CNC machines.” He pointed out that they really appreciate the “maker” aspect of the moldmaking job, as well as the automation used in CNC machines. Buss currently has two apprentices who came from robotics clubs and is actively seeking another mold design apprentice at this time.
Darrin Schmitt at Prodigy, now employing 25 team members, is in the same talent-oriented boat. “This year,” he said, “we will be focusing on gaining efficiencies in the shop with our training and development program.”
Ditto for Donna Pursell, who has 92 employees at Prestige Mold and 55 employees at Pres-Tek Plastics, the affiliated injection molding facility. “With our continued growth,” said Pursell, “hiring qualified employees will be our biggest hurdle this year. We struggle just like every other employer to find the right candidate with the skill set, personality and work ethic that it takes to keep a successful business moving forward.”
Pursell is taking her company’s hiring presentation to local colleges, in pursuit of new, young engineers. “We will offer paid internships in hopes that once they see what our industry has to offer, they will want to make this their career path.”
Onward and upward
At Prodigy, Schmitt has added the company’s first 5-axis mill, an important investment for improvement. The benefits include “having the ability to machine more things finished vs. using the EDM process, and more efficiencies with being able to reach five sides in one set-up,” he said. That’s not the end of it for Prodigy. “A new 5-axis graphite mill is next on our list for major purchases, plus acquiring a molding press for sampling and qualifying new tools.”
For the industry in general, and for their own businesses, these AMBA members sound an optimistic note for 2020. Darrin Schmitt offered a succinct philosophy for embracing the opportunities emerging this year. “Overall,” he said, “I believe that structuring the business for long-term growth – by adding young people, new equipment and technology, and improving processes – is setting us up well for the future.”