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Compounding extruders ex-ceeded expectations for 1996, and the companies that make the machines expect a strong 1997.

Asmut Kahns, director of plastics machinery at Werner & Pfleiderer Corp., originally predicted that plastics compounders, after a banner machine-buying year in 1995, would become saturated and scale back on equipment purchases in the second half of 1996.

That did happen, Kahns said a few weeks before Christmas — ``but not to the extent that maybe I had envisioned. ... The second half of this year slowed down, but not very much.''

Werner & Pfleiderer of Ramsey, N.J., claims to have about 50 percent of the North American compounding extruder market.

In the compounding machinery world, 1996 also was notable for the ``High-Torque War'' between Werner & Pfleiderer and Berstorff Corp. of Charlotte, N.C. In midyear, W&P made the U.S. launch of its ZSK Mega compounding extruder, first introduced at K'95 in Germany. Berstorff unveiled its ZE Ultra Torque. Both machines boast quantum leaps in torque and screw speeds up to 1,200 revolutions per minute — much faster than the designs they replace, which were both more than 10 years old.

Berstorff President Nelson Hopcus said the leap forward in productivity is dramatic enough that it will propel resin companies to develop new engineering resins, ``just because of the speed increase of these machines.''

Berstorff also introduced complete, premanufactured modular compounding lines, including the extruder and all auxiliary equipment mounted on a platform.

Hopcus said this drop-in concept, and the fact that higher-output machines pump through more plastic than ever before, should appeal to resin manufacturers as they add decentralized, regional manufacturing through 2000. He sees an increase in the number of smaller material plants, each with a small number of extruders.

``I see some reasonable investment made by many of the larger producers,'' Hopcus said.

Kahns said he is also bullish.

``Why do I say that? Because I look at my project list and it's a long list. We are aware of quite a

number of projects that should come up for a decision in '97 and that's why we're optimistic.''

Ken Nekola said Pomini Inc., where Nekola is sales engineer manager, has stayed out of the whose-torque-is-higher battle, instead focusing on flexibility. The Brecksville, Ohio, firm's LCM-AX machine combines a twin-screw extruder with a continuous mixer.

``The idea isn't to pound out the biggest pounds per hour that we can but to have a very high window without having to reconfigure the machine'' for material changes, he said.

Nekola sees a continued focus on compounding recycled materials, such as ground wood or rubber used as a filler in basic parts, such as plastic lumber.

``What I'm projecting is kind of a steady period. Not a boom time, but not a bust time — something that's going to be kind of consistent for the next six to eight months,'' Nekola said.

Unit sales at American Leistritz Extruder Corp. have held steady for the past few years, at about 50 machines a year, said Charlie Martin, national sales manager for the Somerville, N.J., firm. German parent Leistritz AG had a record year worldwide, he said.

General-purpose compounding, a broad industry that serves every market, tends to mirror the general economy. But Martin said that is not the case for Leistritz, which in North America gets 80-90 percent of its business from niche-type products. For example, he said company officials believe Leistritz is the largest player in direct extrusion into film and sheet — where machines compound the material and turn it directly into the finished product.

Other Leistritz markets include medical resins, making metal-filled resins for injection molding, and wood-filled materials.

Martin said business in 1996 was ``pretty good. It was about the same as '95. We're actually starting off stronger in '97.''

Twin-screw extruder maker B&P Process Equipment and Services in Saginaw, Mich., also has had success with niche compounding markets, such as powder coating and compounding of highly filled materials, said Pete Giles, sales manager. He said compounded polyolefins and styrenics look strong.

``It's looking real good'' for 1997, Giles said. B&P also has sold machines for uses other than plastics, such as systems that blend adhesives, then deposit it on tape.

At NPE 1997, B&P will launch a 60-millimeter Kokneader for wire and cable and PVC extrusion.

At Farrel Corp., ``We're having our best year since 1991,'' said Mike Hotchkiss, director of sales for plastics machinery. ``We see a dramatic increase in compounding of the more commodity-type compounds like white and black masterbatch and more specialty engineering resins, and alloys and glass-filled materials.''

Farrel saw sales of plastics compounding extruders decline in 1995. Hotchkiss said 1996 was better than 1995, although he declined to provide unit numbers.

In a 1996 reorganization move, the sales staff at the Ansonia, Conn., maker of extruders and mixers now work for either the plastics or the rubber division.

``The intention was to get away from product-focused to becoming market-focused,'' Hotchkiss said.

Through the first nine months of 1996, Farrel reported net sales of $49.1 million, an 8.8 percent increase over $45.1 million for the same period of 1995. The company was losing money — $1 million — through the first nine months.

Year-end 1996 figures were not available for this story.