TOKYO/OSAKA -- After a spell in the doldrums, Japan's mold-making industry has rallied in recent years. Increasingly popular electric vehicles do away with the engines that are many mold-makers' bread and butter. But some manufacturers are honing their techniques to make products for battery-powered cars.

KTX, in central Japan's Aichi Prefecture, has won fans among automakers. "Customers' views on our technology have changed significantly," said Taichi Noda, the company's president and CEO. Its sales have jumped 20% over the past three years, thanks to its porous electroformed molds.

The molds are lightweight, and so precisely machined that they can reproduce human fingerprints or the veins of a maple leaf. They can also be used to make plastic surfaces that resemble leather or fabric.

KTX products became popular after U.S. carmaker Ford Motor adopted them. The molds help cut the weight of a large foreign car's dashboard frame by half to about 2kg. Ford scoured the world for a mold maker for its instrument panels, eventually selecting KTX. Many global automakers followed suit.

Noda said he was surprised by a visit to a factory in South Korea. "Workers there were making molds on the upper floors of the building, where vibrations could affect precision manufacturing," he said. Nonetheless, Chinese and South Korean mold makers have become formidable rivals, thanks to their lower costs.

According to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, Japan's mold production value recovered to where it was before the 2008 global financial crisis, reaching nearly 420 billion yen ($3.84 billion) in 2017. This followed a shakeout among manufacturers. The number of Japanese mold-making establishments has dropped by a fifth to fewer than 8,000 in the 10 years through 2014. Those that have survived are looking to refine their techniques and expand their businesses.

In February, Tokyo-based Woodbell Industry bought Kanehiro, a peer. Electric cars use more sensors and electrically powered components than conventional cars, and the automotive connectors that allow systems to talk to each other are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Automakers are taking advantage of Woodbell's technology to reduce the weight of their electric cars, hybrid vehicles and plug-ins to meet stricter fuel economy regulations.

According to the 16th mold survey conducted by Nikkei at the end of fiscal 2017, 41 companies, or 33.1% of the total, said they planned to raise their capital spending this fiscal year. That was nearly five times more than the number who said they expected to cut spending.

Daishin Dies Industry, based in Osaka, is a specialist in metallic drawing, that is, stretching sheet metal into a desired shape. The company recently introduced high-end cemented carbide finishing machinery. It also plans to automate grinding work that it currently does manually. The number of counterparts with which Daishin does business has fallen since its peak in the 1960s.

"I have seen many companies go out of businesses," said President Kodai Kawashima. The fierce competition has many Japanese mold makers investing furiously. With the improved performance of machine tools, and the spread of computer-aided design, mold makers are doing what they can to survive. They are putting more effort into marketing and trying to weather the ups and downs of the business through tie-ups.

In March, three mold makers in central Japan concluded a partnership, agreeing to share production bases overseas, including in China and Indonesia. Yukihiro Sakoda, the president of one of the partners, MS Group, which makes molds for rubber window frames and other products in Aichi Prefecture, said companies can no longer afford to have a self-centered mindset.

"We often discuss how we can survive, even without making molds," said Hiroaki Nanya, president of another partner, Nagoya Precision Mold. The company specializes in molds for plastic lamps used in cars. By combining resources, the partners hope to make their production and maintenance more efficient, turning a solid profit despite fluctuating demand.

Small manufacturers typically do not have the money to build many overseas plants. "Today, mold makers need to join hands to share production bases and technology," said Sakoda. 

Larger mold makers, too, are setting up an online order-taking platform to link their production lines. A total of 10 manufacturers in central and western Japan, including Chitose Industrial, based in Osaka, and Uchida Seisakusho of Aichi Prefecture, use internet-of-things technology to allocate orders to members with spare capacity.

Numerical control machine tools in each factory are equipped with sensors that are able to send production lines' operating data to a central server every five minutes. The system monitors available capacity using cloud computing, allocating orders to the optimal location.

According to last year's Nikkei survey, demand for molds used to fabricate smartphones and other communication devices has fallen to less than 20% of total demand, down from more than 30% eight years ago. Processing smartphone molds is not a highly skilled job, and production has largely moved overseas.

On the other hand, 112 mold makers, nearly 90% of the survey respondents, said their orders for auto and autoparts molds are rising.

Given the fierce and unrelenting competition they face, Japan's mold makers will have to continue searching for and developing new sources of revenue.

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