Despite recent gains, U.S. machine-tool manufacturers face steep challenges

September 04, 1994|By The Christian Science Monitor

CHICAGO -- U.S. manufacturers owe some of the credit for their widely hailed resurgence to the low-profile makers of machine tools.

Laboring in the shadows of auto, steel and other manufacturers, small machine-tool workshops provide the essential building blocks for industry. They produce everything from nuts, bolts, and screws to the robots, presses and casters vital to a myriad of manufacturers.

After years of painful streamlining, consolidation and technological upgrading, U.S. machine-tool manufacturers are more productive and competitive than they have been for more than two decades, industry executives and analysts say. "There is very little doubt that productivity and efficiency of domestic machine-tool producers has improved dramatically," says Peter Toja, president of Economic Planning Associates Inc., in

Smithtown, N.Y.

The opportunity for growth for the U.S. industry is also extraordinarily good, industry experts say. With the U.S. economy on the upswing, orders received in 1993 for metal-cutting and metal-forming machine tools surged 33 percent over the previous year. In the first six months of 1994, industry orders jumped 23.6 percent over the same period last year.

U.S. machine-tool manufacturers are better positioned than their foreign rivals to sell to the booming markets of North America. Moreover, companies are seizing on the burgeoning markets of China and other developing countries in Asia.

Still, machine-tool manufacturers face steep challenges. Japanese and European competitors swooped into the U.S. market after import curbs expired last year. These foreign manufacturers are especially aggressive because of the low demand in their own recessionary economies. Also, government restrictions on the export of sophisticated machine tools hobble efforts by American companies overseas. The U.S. industry estimates that cold-war-era export bans cost it $150 million annually in sales and discourage the creation of about 3,000 export-related jobs.

Most U.S. machine-tool manufacturers operate on a small scale and lack the capital for the research and innovation necessary to stay ahead of large foreign rivals.

In general, "machine-tool companies are still mom-and-pop operations with comparatively few employees, relying on a few big purchases," says John Townsend, a spokesman for Giddings & Lewis Inc., in Fond du Lac, Wis., the largest U.S. producer of machine tools. Many U.S. companies were founded by highly skilled entrepreneurs and are family-run and owned.

Fortunately, machine-tool manufacturers are not strangers to harsh competition. They have learned firsthand about the high costs of complacency, the danger of indifference toward foreign competition, and the imperative for technological advancement. In 1956, U.S. machine-tool manufacturers controlled more than 80 percent of the domestic market and employed about 75,000 workers. They were the world's No. 1 producers, building nearly one-half of the world's machine tools, exporting more machines than any other country, and, on a per-worker basis, leading the world in investment and productivity.

Within three decades, however, the U.S. industry was brought almost to its knees because of government and corporate neglect at home and intense, sometimes predatory, trading by companies abroad.

By 1982, the U.S. could claim just 10 percent of world production. During the same period, Japan rose from a weakling in machine tools to the world's leader.

Morrow Garrison, chairman of the Association for Manufacturing Technology (AMT) in McLean, Va., recalls that in the 1960s, executives from the then-puny Japanese industry attended the first U.S. machine-tool trade show with crude machines but with many note pads and cameras at the ready.

"Americans, at that time, laughed at the Japanese and the first machine tools they marketed over here," says Mr. Garrison, vice chairman at CRL Industries in Des Plaines, Ill. "But in a short span of time, those tears of glee turned to tears of woe."

Along with bitter foreign competition, U.S. companies also faced a brutal cyclical downturn in the early 1980s. The severe ebb was especially hard on the skilled crafts people at machine-tool plants: From 1980 to '83, the number of blue-collar workers at U.S. machine-tool factories plummeted 44 percent to a total of 39,800.

Since their heyday, U.S. machine-tool manufacturers have seen foreigners seize one-half of the domestic market. The U.S. companies that have survived have done so by merging, offering a broad product line, or creating a niche in a close tie-up with one or a few manufacturers, says Mr. Toja.

U.S. companies have also received strong assistance from the government. In 1987, Washington enacted "voluntary restraint agreements" with leading foreign exporters. The import limits helped give domestic producers breathing room to streamline through innovation and the adoption of more productive equipment.

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