I recently returned from attending TIMTOS, the international machine tool show of Taiwan. Held every other year in Taipei, the show provides a good yardstick by which to measure this nation's progress in metalworking technology, both technical and commercial. And I bet things are a lot different there than most Americans realize.
Having been to three of the last four shows, it's remarkable to see how far this industry has come in such a short period of time. Just a few years ago, industry officials would self-consciously publicize the number of CNC machines on display as evidence that Taiwan was no longer just a manual machine producer. That's no longer necessary. CNC is the rule now, not the exception, and many builders are several generations deep in the technology. Indeed, several homegrown five-axis machines were on display this year, high speed machines were plentiful, and there was even a hexapod as well.
Commercially, the industry has held up well in spite of the economic calamity that has stricken the rest of Asia. Last year Taiwan actually managed to increase machine tool production a few points when measured in its own currency (though it fell more than 12 percent in U.S. dollars due to a major shift in the exchange rate), while consumption fell all across Asia.
Where Taiwan made up the lion's share of the difference was with a substantial increase in machine tool exports to the United States, which once again pushed ahead of mainland China to become Taiwan's largest export market. Overall, Taiwan exports three quarters of its production, and last year held firmly to its place as the world's sixth largest exporter of machine tools, just behind the United States.
We may well be seeing even more Taiwanese machine tools in the future, and not just at the low end of the CNC market. The Taiwanese need only to look across to the mainland to see Asia's low-cost producer of the future. They know they have to continue to push up technology and quality levels to remain competitive worldwide. Moreover, the industry as a whole is beginning to think hard about how to build better support structures in foreign markets, with enhanced repair and financing services.
These are all hot topics of discussion in the Taiwanese machine tool industry right now. And I suspect that more than a few companies are going to find a way to make them happen.