Die-cast toys have been around since the early 19th century, when Bavarian manufacturers pressed tin into mechanical locomotives, whistles and other penny toys. Today, most die-cast products come from Asian manufacturers, something that concerns some members of the North American die-cast industry.
"Much of the industry has moved offshore, and with the departure of this segment of the industry, quality can become a major issue," said Leo J. Baran, director of membership and marketing for the North American Die-Casting Association. "Other concerns are intellectual property rights along with copyright and trademark infringements. Many countries, including China, are not equipped to deal with infringements—and don´t. It can cause loss of market share to the producer of the toy and inferior knock-offs that can cause the consumer to be disappointed with their purchase," Baran continued.
The issue of product quality affects companies specializing in true die-cast items. "The world is so over proliferated with plastic toys with one piece of die-cast that they call true die-cast," said Steve VonHandorf, director of sales and marketing at Dyersville Die Cast, a division of Joseph L Ertl Inc. "The die-cast term is such a highly regarded term. People hear die-cast and they think quality; they think heavy; they think durable. What´s happened when these companies went overseas, they´ve tried to mislead the public and put one piece of die-cast—it might be a hood on one small piece—and put a big die-cast sign on the packaging."
VonHandorf notes that competing with lower production costs is a balancing act. "Because we make all our toys here in the States, we´re almost a lost breed. That´s why we have to be very selective in what we produce and what we market," he explained. "We need to do things that aren´t labor intensive, and sometimes we have to sacrifice detail for that. The American sentiment is to buy American-made product, but that sentiment goes out the window on price."
On the positive side, advancements in technology have allowed manufacturers to attain new levels of accuracy and detail.
"Technology has made it a lot easier," said VonHandorf. "When making a new automobile or tractor, we will work right off the designer´s CAD files. We can literally cut tooling right off that file."
While this process reduces the time it takes to produce a new model, it doesn´t necessarily mean a drop of production cost.
"It´s almost a wash as far as cost," said VonHandorf. "Although it´s a lot faster and simpler, it´s also a lot more expensive because you have to buy the technology."
Manufacturers trying to develop a popular collectible vehicle face a tougher job today, given the current crop of SUVs, minivans and clone car styles coming from automobile manufacturers. When distinctive models, like the PT Cruiser or the Cooper Mini, come along, die-cast manufacturers jump at acquiring the license. For Maisto, the Hummer H2 has been very successful, although the company also re-released a version of a discontinued model, the 1996 Corvette Grand Sport.
"It was offered as a roadster, initially," said Charles Hepperle, Maisto´s product coordinator. "Through the natural process of things, we dropped it from our production list. We saw collectors were really looking for the old ones that were discontinued, so we brought it back as a coupe. We didn´t want to bring back a roadster to interfere with the collectors."
Hepperle sums it up: "The better the economy, the better the higher-priced models sell. Those are hardly words of wisdom."