NOVI, Mich.—There is a common theme among tool makers and plastics processors that are doing well and growing: good leadership and a solid strategy.
Perhaps no one in the industry would understand that better than Laurie Harbour.
Harbour is president and CEO of Harbour Results Inc., a consulting firm in Southfield, Mich., that works with small- to medium-sized manufacturers. Around 40 percent of the manufacturers she works with are in plastics, with another 30-40 percent in tooling, including injection and compression mold making.
For the past 30 years, Harbour, who started helping companies by working with her father and mentor, Jim, has visited manufacturing plants day in and day out to assist those businesses in driving efficiency and profitability and implementing strategic plans. Harbour and her team also gather hundreds of pieces of data every quarter from processors and tool makers, resulting in reports that "push the industry to be better in terms of what they do," she said.
"The common theme in all of those (companies) that do well vs. those that are struggling is a good solid leadership team, a good solid strategy that cascades through the whole organization," Harbour said Jan. 15 during a Q&A session at the Plastics & Rubber in Automotive conference.
Tariffs and tooling
Harbour was the recipient of the 2018 Plastics News' Automotive Newsmaker of the Year award for her tireless efforts in painting the big picture effect of macroeconomic matters in automotive and public policy—i.e., the swirling tornado of uncertainty from trade and tariff issues—and the impact on tool makers, mold makers and plastics processors.
"The tool guys, when the tariffs came into play last year, for the most part were incredibly happy about it," she said. Tariffs on injection tools built in China meant more tooling potentially being built in North America, specifically the U.S. and Canada.
"The processors, on the other hand, were of course incredibly frustrated because their customers and the pricing they need to get for tooling oftentimes forces them to go to China," Harbour said. For plastics processors, it meant higher prices, or the need to develop a new supply base closer to home.
But the Trump administration's Dec. 28 announcement to put a hold on 25 percent tariffs on injection molds imported from China has led to a flip-flopping of these client views.
"Processors are really happy again because they can go back to China at least for a year period of time. They can also recover some of their money they didn't get paid for back to July 6," she said.
Tool makers, however, are a "mixed result," Harbour said: frustrated that the market has opened up again, but happy because some larger tool makers were also hit with some tariffs.
"My caution to the market has been we have to remember that part of the reason we go to China is because customers want us to have low-cost tooling," she said.
At the end of October, Harbour Results released the findings of its Harbour IQ study on the current state of the automotive vendor tooling industry. The report forecasts the 2019 tooling spend to be $8 billion, a decrease compared with 2018, which Harbour predicted to be around $9.2 billion. She attributed the dip to a reduction in North American vehicle launches predicted between 2019-21.
"I think we're going to start to see those things break through in 2019, but it's definitely happening slower than we anticipated it to," she said. "Our basic prediction going forward is that it's going to be a little bit more of a level load kind of a scenario."
A different opportunity
Another factor stirring up vigilance among processors and toolmakers is the disappearing sedan as consumers steer their preferences toward sport utility vehicles, trucks and crossovers. Harbour sees this as just a different opportunity for those in automotive, especially suppliers.
"When you think about trucks and SUVs, there's a lot more plastic and a lot more tooling that goes into those than in a traditional sedan, which is what is leaving our market," she said. Losing the sedans doesn't mean that volume goes away. Rather, it is going to be replaced with various SUVs and CUVs.
Other opportunities that are coming into play for suppliers include more developments in industry 4.0, artificial intelligence and future mobility via electric and autonomous vehicles.
Whether you're a $10 million tool shop or a $500 million molder, Harbour said companies need to figure out what's right for them in terms of their strategies for the future because turning their backs on these changes and not challenging the status quo will result in being left behind.
"Will there be a little bit of an adjustment? Yeah," she said. "And I think, frankly, those who have put the effort into being better businesses with good leadership challenging them to be better all the time are the ones who are going to come through this."