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Thermoformers spent more than $90 million last year on vacuum and pressure forming equipment for their U.S. plants, with a chunk of that channeled into bigger, more-sophisticated machines for both sheet- and roll-fed operations.

By 2000, the domestic market for thermoforming machines should reach the $115 million mark, with imports making up just 13 percent of that business, according to market research from Freedonia Group Inc. of Cleveland.

Several machinery makers say their sales are surpassing Freedonia's growth forecast of 5.2 percent a year. Those reporting record growth last year, like Central Automated Machinery Inc., are expecting a repeat performance or better in 1997. Some are expanding to keep pace with demand.

``It's a little bit like the stock market. You keep expecting the thing to top out, to level out, and [it] just keeps going,'' said Bruce Smith, president of CAM, which manufactures rotary and shuttle machines in Gladwin, Mich.

CAM's forecast for 1996 panned out as its best year yet in sales and profit, though it sold nearly the same number of units as in 1995, he said. Its sales of close to $3 million included more large, expensive rotary machines, plus several twin-sheet formers, all equipped with graphic interface and elaborate oven-zoning controls and priced between $300,000 and $500,000 apiece, he said.

CAM was working on five such machines when Smith was interviewed in mid-December. But plant space in Gladwin is limited, and Smith said he is mulling expansion to handle more volume.

``There's quite a bit of pressure out there for new machines, at least the kind that we build,'' he said. ``There's not that many companies that build large, upscale machinery, so there's not that much competition.''

One competitor, Maac Machinery Co., also saw sales climb in 1996. Another, heavyweight Brown Machine, saw a slight softening in last year's industrial equipment sales, compared with 1995's explosive growth, according to Brown Vice President Bill Kent.

Maac of Itasca, Ill., sold about 35 units in 1996 — mostly rotary pressure formers, including six twin-sheet machines — priced from $150,000-$625,000, said President Paul Alongi. Sales rose about 20 percent over 1995, taxing its 50-strong work force, he said. Aggressively looking to double that growth rate this year, Alongi plans to add 20 production people.

In demand are sophisticated process controls, and last year's buzzword was faster cycles — mainly for running polyethylene sheet, which accounts for more than 70 percent of all industrial thermoforming, he said.

For Brown Machine, a division of John Brown Plastics Machinery Kvarner USA Inc., its thin-gauge equipment fared better this year, fueled both by packaging and polystyrene cups and lids, Kent said by telephone from the firm's Beaverton, Mich., headquarters.

``We're not leading the pack [for industrial machines],'' he said, noting that sales were off somewhat for rotary twin-sheet formers. ``There's still an industrial market out there. Right now the packaging roll-fed [equipment market] is a little bit stronger than the industrial. But for '94 and '95 we basically had the reversal of that.''

Illig GmbH of Heilbronn, Germany, sold a dozen thin-gauge vacuum formers into the U.S. market last year, mainly large, high-cavitation machines with trim-in-place technology for dairy and deli containers, according to Bernd Lueder, North American sales manager. In the next few years, Illig expects to sell even more large thin-gauge systems, some priced at $1 million-plus, as more injection molded yogurt cups and margarine tubs are converted to thermoformed poly-propylene.

Some thermoformers may be dragging their feet on equipment decisions until NPE 1997, making this a crucial year for suppliers, Lueder said.

ZMD International Inc. hopes to boost business at least 50 percent by introducing new concepts, such as a side-by-side double-station vacuum former, which it will feature at NPE.

In July ZMD tripled manufacturing space and production rates when it moved from Paramount, Calif., to a new plant in Long Beach, Calif., said Jacob Horev, vice president of marketing.

The biggest end market for its equipment is whirlpools, bathtubs and spas, he said. Last year, the firm sold about 40 units, predominantly heavy-gauge machines. U.S. sales were up, representing 40 percent of its total sales, compared with 25 percent in 1995. Delivery times range from three weeks for a small machine, to eight-10 weeks for a large one and 12-14 for a multiple-mold system.

Two U.S. customers already are using the double-station machines, priced roughly 70 percent higher than single-station models, Horev said. Also in the works is a four-station rotary twin-sheet pressure former, a first for ZMD.

Though Zed Industries Inc.'s unit volume stayed steady in 1996, its new high-speed SC Series helped to re-establish the Vandalia, Ohio, firm's pressure forming market, said Peter Zelnick, vice president. Introduced early last year, the self-compensating, all-servo, all-computerized machine makes blisters, clamshells and trays.

``We expected to kick off a few of these,'' he said. ``We've actually done three times the sales we anticipated.''

Lyle Industries Inc.'s sales were up 11 percent last year for its in-line, roll-fed machines, fueled by computer controls for tracking and recording data, servo-driven equipment and trim-in-place technology for automotive interior trim, said sales director Brian Crawford.

The Beaverton company projects a 15 percent increase in business for 1997.

Sencorp Systems Inc., which makes roll-fed equipment in Hyannis, Mass., was right on target domestically, but increased foreign sales by about 20 percent, according to Tony Giovannoni, president. Exports make up 30 percent of its total business, which includes Armac machines.

Far East countries, excluding Japan, took a big number of ZMD's exports in 1996, Horev said. Last year CAM exported its first machines since 1990. Brown Machine's Kent said his firm's foreign business, strong in 1996, will stay that way.

``Unless something happens economically or politically ... it appears as though [in 1997] the Middle East, Latin America and Asia will still be good, up years again,'' he said.