By Ron Shinn
Most plastics machinery builders are hunkered down to weather a sluggish manufacturing cycle, but LS Mtron is in attack mode to gain North American market share.
Plastics processors may not be familiar with the South Korean-based company with the funny name, but that is likely to change soon.
With about 1,000 injection molding machines in operation in the U.S. and another 1,000 in Mexico, LS Mtron claims a market share of less than 5 percent. “I mean, it’s definitely less than 5 percent,” said Peter Gardner, president of LS IMM USA. “Our short-term goal is to get to 10 percent in a hurry.”
Gardner believes reaching 10 percent market share will cause his parent company to build an assembly plant in the U.S. to support further growth. “If we do our job here, they will put up an assembly plant in North America,” Gardner said. “We are going to get that 10 percent, then it is on to the next level.”
He said five years is a reasonable time to reach the 10 percent goal.
Many of those 2,000 injection molding machines already in North America are in LG and LS company plants, as well as many Korean transplants in the automotive, aerospace and electronics markets. LS, which was formed as a spin-off of LG in South Korea, is the conglomerate that owns LS Mtron.
LS Mtron presses were initially sold here through LS Tractor USA. But that changed in June 2021 when LS Mtron acquired the plastics machinery division of Daiichi Jitsugyo America (DJA), a subsidiary of the Japanese trading company that had been distributing LS Mtron injection molding machines since 2018. At that time, all DJA Plastics Division employees joined the newly formed LS Mtron Injection Molding Machine USA, and Gardner was named business director. In January 2023, LS formed a new entity named LS IMM USA, and named Gardner president.
That marked a turning point for how aggressively the South Korean machinery manufacturer decided to go after the North American market.
During the past year, Paul Caprio, a longtime chief executive at KraussMaffei (25 years) and Engel (two years), was lured out of retirement to become president of sales. A network of sales representative firms and direct company salespeople have been hired and service teams beefed up.
NPE2024 in May is going to be a coming-out party of sorts. LS Mtron will have the largest booth space dedicated to injection molding machines (13,500 square feet) and it will be in the front row of the West Hall.
“Too many people don’t even know who we are,” Caprio said during a recent interview. “NPE is going to be an explosion. Everyone who molds in North America is going to that show. I can’t imagine that they don’t. And they are going to say: ‘Who is that? …. Why haven’t we gotten a quote from them? …. Why don’t we know their salesman?’ ”
“Our booth is going to look like the top booth,” Caprio said.
Gardner said LS Mtron’s parent company is willing to invest in the North American market. That leads to the “Go big or go home” philosophy behind the huge NPE booth.
Caprio’s excitement is evident as he talks about LS Mtron’s machines and future in the U.S. During his 25 years at KraussMaffei, the German company’s U.S. market share went from nothing to an estimated 20 percent at its peak. “It won’t take that long here,” he predicted.
Gardner refers to Caprio, a longtime friend, as the Optimus Prime of the injection molding machinery industry. Optimus Prime is the protagonist in the “Transformer” movie series. He is a self-configuring modular lifeform, leader of the Autobots and hero of the story.
“Paul is excellent. That’s why I was very excited to be working with him again. I know how he raises everybody up, too. Everybody gets a little more enthusiastic when they are working with him,” Gardner said.
Korean family-owned conglomerate
The LG Group is a family-owned, multinational conglomerate with about 100 subsidiaries and has a total of 60,000 employees and $122.5 billion in annual sales. It was founded by Koo In-hwoi and managed by successive generations of his family. It is the fourth-largest chaebol, or conglomerate, in South Korea.
The LS Group was established in South Korea in 2003 as a family-owned spin-off of the LG Group. The company has become the 17th-biggest industrial company in Korea with 25,000 employees and worldwide annual sales of $30 billion. In North America, there are about 4,100 LS employees. It is operated by Koo family members.
LG, then known as Lucky Goldstar, started building injection molding machines in 1969. The name was changed to LG in 1995. The machines were initially for use by LG companies and were built under license from Toshiba. Toshiba was LG’s preferred press brand for its wide-ranging manufacturing operations in tractors, electrical cables and connectors, automation, energy sector equipment and other products, but could not keep up with LG’s demand for machines.
That contract lasted for 10 years and when it expired, LG designed and built its own molding machines.
In 2008, the LS Group established the LS Mtron company to operate LS Tractor, LS Injection Molding Machines and various other subsidiaries. That’s when the injection molding machine brand changed from LG to LS.
LS Mtron has about 30 employees in the U.S. for the injection molding business. Gardner said the company does not report injection molding machinery sales.
Today, South Korean manufacturers Hyundai and Kia assemble huge numbers of autos in the U.S. and appliance and electronics makers like LG and Samsung have strong market shares in several sectors. South Korean companies are also well represented in the nascent battery industry for electric vehicles. Many of these factories use LS Mtron molding machines exclusively.
“All the LG factories use LS machines now,” Gardner said. “We have a lot of subsidiaries that do molding. As a company and as a family company, the feedback we get from ourselves and from our family is incredible for building the machine. There is no other builder like that.”
That means Gardner and Caprio are building market share on a strong base. “Having 2,000 installed machines in the market takes away all the fear from a new customer,” Caprio said. “To be successful, you have to offer something that customers are not getting from incumbents that are primarily Japanese or European machinery manufacturers.
“You can no longer offer a better value simply by taking something away from the product or leaving something out,” Caprio said. “You’ve got to provide all of the quality and all of the bells and whistles that they expect.”
“We are going to get this message across and we are going to earn customers,” Caprio said. “Peter and his group have been doing it before I got here. I’m just helping get more feet on the ground and more experience on the big machines with sales and so forth. It is all going to come.”
Caprio said the slogan “Made for molders by molders” works in the marketplace. “We use what we make, so we know it’s good.”
LS Mtron has won converts outside of Korean transplants and LG and LS companies. The molding machines are now in thousands of plants worldwide and a growing number in the U.S. One example is California-based U.S. Merchants, which has purchased hundreds of LS Mtron molding machines since 2018 for four plants, including 69 in a new facility in Phoenix.
Gardner and Caprio say you can look at the swift rise of South Korean automobiles, appliances and electronics for a clue to how LS Mtron plans to succeed in the North American market. “Our machines are not the most expensive and not the cheapest, but they are full of value,” Gardner said.
Gardner said overall machinery sales have slowed in the past year, but LS Mtron has prospered. He explained that processors are taking longer to make a buying decision, which gives his sales team a better opportunity to show what LS Mtron has to offer. “Customers have time to do their homework,” he said.
Gardner and Caprio believe LS Mtron is already a Top 10 player in the worldwide injection molding machinery industry. “We see the Japanese companies as absolutely wonderful competitors and we see the Europeans as great competitors as well,” Caprio said. “We are right in that mix with what we are able to do.
“We have to tie in all of the Korean products and why they are winning, then show that we are the same,” Caprio said. “Our message to our customers is that you are getting the best value because we have the best technology, the best performance and of course the best value, which is the price performance.”
But do you get the respect of a Top 10 player? “No, not yet,” the two reply almost simultaneously.
Wide range of molding machines
LS Mtron has a wide range of electric and hydraulic machines.
- Servo hydraulic presses range from 100 tons of clamping force to 4,500 tons of clamping force. Presses with 500 tons and higher clamping force have two platens.
- Electric models start at 35 tons of clamping force and go up to 1,000 tons of clamping force. An electric model with 1,500 tons of clamping force is being introduced this year. LS Mtron introduced the One-E series in 2022 with five sizes ranging from 120 tons of clamping force to 390 tons, then added four new models in 2023 ranging from 55 tons of clamping force to 440 tons.
- Hybrid vertical presses range from 40 tons of clamping force to 660 tons of clamping force. Ten new vertical LSG-V presses were added in 2023 to the three previously offered. The new models give processors options for vertical or horizontal injection and rotary-table or single-station designs.
The company has proprietary software now available on all new machines and retrofittable to some older models that uses artificial intelligence (AI) that speeds up initial setup and removes variability from the molding press.
AI Molding Assistant learns optimal conditions and sets up the best possible process with minimal operator intervention. Gardner said tests show setup time with AI Molding Assistant can be 23 percent faster than a high-skilled operator.
Smart Weight Control software calculates weight differences between parts and changes molding parameters to correct variables such as injection pressure or resin batch inconsistencies. Part defects are reduced and resin is saved. It is said to work with 100 percent regrind material.
Over the past 10 years, about 43 percent of sales have been electric machines.
Automotive, electronics, appliance and logistics packaging applications are the primary markets for LS Mtron molding machines.
LS Mtron can build about 2,800 injection presses a year. The main plant in Jeonju, Korea, can produce about 1,600 presses a year for the Korean, U.S. and European markets. A second plant in China builds about 1,200 molding machines solely for the China and Southeast Asian markets.
LS Group companies supply many of the components for LS Mtron presses, starting with an in-house casting company using high-quality Korean steel. Finished machines are shipped on an affiliated LG Group shipping line. The company says an injection press can be shipped within 100 days of the purchase order being signed. “Casting to cargo in 100 days,” Caprio said.
Gardner said the fast shipping time had proven to be a key LS Mtron benefit for U.S. customers who do not want to wait for longer delivery times of some other suppliers.
In addition to the steel castings, an LG-founded company produces servo drives and another provides the electrical systems. Some outside suppliers to LS Mtron are NSK for bearings and ball screws, Xaloy screws, Gates timing belts and KEBA controllers.
Four locations in the U.S.
The company has four locations in the U.S. — the headquarters, service center and warehouse in Duluth, Ga.; a technical center in Wood Dale, Ill.; parts warehouse in San Diego, Calif.; and a tech center in Brownsville, Texas.
Approximately 50 molding presses are stored in Atlanta for immediate delivery. There are five machines under power for training in the Wood Dale facility.
In Mexico, LS Mtron recently announced the opening of LS Mtron Mexico, with a new headquarters, service, parts and sales office in Monterrey and service offices in Queretaro and Tijuana.
LS Mtron has about 30 people in its U.S. support team. “It’s a small number of people for such a population of machinery,” Caprio said. “That shows me that this machinery does not require a lot of hand-holding. You don’t need a lot of people to support it because the machine runs so well.”
Two engineers from LS Mtron’s research and development department in Korea are on 90-day assignments to the Chicago tech center and plans call for them to relocate to the U.S. with their families. One has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and designs molding machines. The other is a software engineer.
“We are effectively bringing our R&D department here to the United States,” Gardner said. “They sent us two of their really top people because they proactively realized the United States is where we want to win.”
A branded LS University is in the works, an online training program with Routsis Training. “Our customers want training because they have workforce development problems,” Gardner said. “It will be a training package the customer gets for a year or so when he purchases a machine.” Details are still being finalized.
By the way, the word Mtron is a play on the words Mechanical and Electronics = Mechatronics = Mtron. You are going to hear it frequently in the coming months. Optimus Prime says so.
For more information:
LS Mtron Injection Molding Machine USA. Duluth, Ga., 470-724-2263, https://www.lsinjection.com/us