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Going into 1997, blow molding machinery manufacturers say North American growth is strong for blowing big industrial parts, but should continue to be soft for consumer products such as motor oil and soft drinks.

According to the most recently available figures from the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., sales of blow molding machines shipped to U.S. processors climbed steadily for several years before peaking, at 295 machines, in 1994. The following year, shipments slipped to 279.

Numbers for 1996 are not available yet, but representatives of blow molding manufacturers say the key consumer packaging market remains in somewhat of a rut — largely because some sectors are reaching maturity.

``Large industry blow molded parts still are more active than the packaging,'' said Kemp Shepard, vice president of marketing at Wilmington Machinery of Wilmington, N.C.

Wilmington makes rotary wheel blow molders, largely for high density polyethylene bottles. While large, some of the markets, such as that for antifreeze, do not present major growth opportunities in North America. But Shepard said developing nations offer a good market.

In food packaging, Wilmington Machinery blow molding equipment has been a hit, Shepard said.

Still, the growth rate of the important PET soda bottle market has taken some lumps. Industry analysts quoted in Plastics News' blow molding special report in November said the market grew less than 10 percent in 1996 — the lowest rate of growth so far in the 1990s.

Although the company does not make blow molding machines, Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. closely tracks PET bottle production, which drives sales of its machines that injection mold preforms. Husky, in its annual report, said its overall sales declined by 6.7 percent, to $568.2 million, in fiscal 1996, ended July 31. The company blamed a 1996 falloff in machines for PET preform molding—which followed a big growth year for that market in 1995.

Sales of industrial blow molding machines, not packaging machinery, have kept things hopping at Krupp Plastics and Rubber Machinery Inc., the U.S. unit of Germany's Krupp Kunststofftechnik GmbH.

``Sales for 1996 are at record levels,'' said John Antonopoulos, president of the company in Edison, N.J.

``It's a result of high-tech machines, both monolayer and coextrusion for fuel tanks, drums, [intermediate bulk containers for shipping], things like that,'' Antonopoulos said.

Essen, Germany-based Krupp Kunststofftechnik beefed up its large-part blow molding equipment business in late 1996 by acquiring a competitor, Battenfeld Fischer Blasformtechnik GmbH, in Troisdorf, Germany. In other Battenfeld news, the acquisition-minded Davis-Standard Division of Crompton & Knowles Corp. bought the Hartig and FHB line of blow molding machines from Battenfeld Blowmolding Machines Inc. in Boonton, N.J.

Italy's Automa SpA is still getting the word out about its U.S. unit, Automa North American, in Dublin, Ohio. Although the company is doing well worldwide, ``in the States, we've been doing OK, but sales were less than we expected [in 1996],'' said Sergio Nanni, North American manager.

Automo makes continuous extrusion blow molding machines and injection stretch blow machines.

Nanni is counting on NPE in June to boost business.

``We think it will be booming for '97, probably also because we are closer to NPE,'' he said. ``NPE can be very influential in this. I'm quite positive. We have a lot of things bubbling in the pan.''

In 1997, one major Japanese supplier could become more familiar to U.S. bottle molders. Officials at Aoki Technical Laboratory Inc. said they want to triple U.S. sales, to 30 machines a year. Early last year, the company announced four new agents to cover every region of the United States. The company also opened Aoki America SA de CV last year, in Monterrey, Mexico.