Foreign competition, high steel prices, and other factors continue to claim victims among local shops that make equipment for factory machinery, including General Tool and Die of North Adams, Mich., which its parent company is planning to close next month.
But companies that have held on through the turmoil of the last several years, such as a slimmed-down Die Cast Die & Mold Inc. of Perrysburg, are starting to see improvements in the industry.
Die Cast's business started to rise in 2003 before dipping last year, but this year's prospects have brightened again as some customers contract out the production of dies and other tools manufacturers use in their factories' machinery, said Jim Gagnet, vice president.
"It's kind of been a little bit of a roller coaster for us," Mr. Gagnet said. His firm has 22 employees, less than half of its workforce five years ago.
Both Michigan and Ohio have been hard hit by job losses in the U.S. tool-and-die industry, which was plagued by competition from China and elsewhere in the 1990s followed by the U.S. recession. Some businesses have closed or have eliminated jobs.
Michigan has the highest concentration of tool-and-die workers nationwide, and it lost 8,470 such high-paying and skilled jobs - or a third of that workforce - between 1998 and 2003, the government's latest statistics show.
Ohio has the nation's third-highest concentration of tool-and-die workers, and the state in those years lost 3,820 jobs, or a quarter of the corresponding workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Overall, the nation's tool-and-die jobs have decreased from 136,420 in 1998 to 101,090 in 2003, government figures show.
Such jobs paid $43,940 a year on average nationwide in 2003, and $52,010 in Michigan and $45,740 in Ohio.
One promising sign for the industry is an upward trend in U.S. machine tool consumption, which topped $3 billion last year for the first time since 2000, according a report by the American Machine Tool Distributors' Association and the Association for Manufacturing Technology.
"There's no doubt that things have gotten a little better," said Gary Schiffres, director of membership for the distributors' association, which is based in Rockville, Md.
Some companies that bought foreign-made dies, which are used to stamp metal parts or to mold other materials, are returning to American manufacturers because of issues with transportation costs and quality, Mr. Schiffres said.
Still, rising costs for health care, borrowing, energy, and steel make it difficult to compete in the price-sensitive industry, said Mr. Gagnet of Die Cast.
The firm scaled back some jobs because of advances in technology but has been able to diversify its customer base to include parts suppliers to foreign automakers, he said.
Diversification has helped some local companies prosper in the last few years despite high steel prices and other difficulties.
Toledo Tool & Die Co. Inc. not only has a 15-employee tool and die shop, it manufactures auto parts for customers.
The company overall has nearly 100 employees, up from about 35 five years ago, and has added about five tool and die positions in the last 18 months, said Bill Bacarella, chief financial officer.
"We've been very fortunate," he said.
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