Manufacturing Industry Portugal: Two toolmaking clusters in one small country

Editor: Rosemarie Stahl

Somewhere in the Portuguese no-man’s land between Lisbon and Porto there are two cities simply brimming with plastic injection mould makers. With 150 companies, Marinha Grande is home to one of these clusters. Some streets here are lined with nothing but mould makers.

While tourists mostly know Portugal for its beaches, its port wine and its food, it is also quite famous for its experience in tool and mould making.
While tourists mostly know Portugal for its beaches, its port wine and its food, it is also quite famous for its experience in tool and mould making.
(Source: © Sean Pavone 2015 / Fotolia.com)

The Portuguese manufacturing industry was founded over 200 years ago. It started not with tool and mould making but with glass. The first glass companies were founded in the late 18th century in Marinha Grande and Oliveira de Azemeis. More than a hundred years later, Portuguese artisans started producing the first moulds for glassware. Many new companies dedicated to this business area were founded at this time.

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It still took several years until the first plastic injection mould was produced. Aníbal H. Abrantes is famous for being the first one to bring this industry to Portugal. After this start in 1944, Portuguese mould makers predominately produced moulds for toys. Dolls, playing pieces and other similar items were the foundation stone on which Portuguese mould making is now based. While at the beginning, most moulds were made for Portuguese customers, the step to selling Portuguese products abroad was not far away: In 1955, the first mould from Portugal was sold to England. And thus, a success story began.

It wasn't long before the few existing companies found themselves unable to cope with incoming orders. To deal with the increasing demand, spin-offs of existing companies were founded. Soon, experienced workers created their own companies in close proximity. This led to a friendly coexistence of a huge number of companies. Nowadays, about 450 tool and mould makers are based in Portugal. Most of them are still crowded into the same two areas of Marinha Grande and Oliveira de Azeméis.

When asking Portuguese toolmakers why Portugal is so successful, they answer with two simple words: trust and experience. Over the last 60 years, Portuguese companies have been gaining know-how, bringing them advantages compared to newer markets. The numbers show that this experience pays off. Today, most of the Portuguese products does not stay in Portugal: Over 90% of the moulds for plastic injection are exported to more than 80 countries worlwide. Since 2010, exports have increased by 92%. In 2016, exports reached over €625m.

Know-how was gained over decades

The most important export markets for Portuguese moulds are other European countries. 22% of products are exported to Spain, followed by Germany (20%), France (16%) and Poland (7%). Last year, Spain overtook Germany for the first time. The greatest competitors for Portuguese tool and mould makers are Asian countries.

According to ISTMA, the International Special Tooling & Machining Association, Portugal is 9th on the list of the biggest global players in the tool, die and mould industry, with a production worth €607m. In Europe, they are the fourth-largest producer after Germany, Italy and France.

The days when most customers came from the toy sector are long gone. The most important sector nowadays is automotive. It has a share of 74%. Compared to this figure, the other sectors only play a small role: Packaging accounts for 10%, houseware electrics for 4%, electronics for only 2%. Still, the demand is increasing. According to Cefamol, the Portuguese Association for the Mould Industry, large multinational companies are increasingly choosing Portuguese moulds to develop products for major international brands. As a whole, Portuguese production increased by 78% over the past six years.

Co-operation and coexistence instead of competition

Still, one may wonder how so many companies can coexist so close together, sometimes next door. But this closeness also leads to a perfect exchange situation. If one manufacturer finds a solution to a particular production requirement, all other companies can adapt quickly. At the same time, companies put an effort in providing training programmes for employees – something that can be dealt with a lot easier by multiple companies compared to the effort a single mould maker would have to undertake. Furthermore, employees are paid similar salary everywhere.

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Another unrivalled advantage for Portuguese companies is their strong export numbers. As Noel Hugo Carlos, head engineer at Tecnimoplás, explains, they do not depend on the economical situation of Portugal because most of their customers come from abroad. Therefore, Portuguese companies did not feel the effect of the European debt crisis as strongly as other sectors. This is one thing, tool and mould makers in other European countries can learn from this Portuguese success story: A globally well-positioned company does not depend on the economic well-being of a single country.

This article was first published on ETMM online.

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