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Officials of extruder manufacturers say 1996 was better than they had expected a year ago.

A surprisingly buoyant construction industry kept extruder suppliers smiling through most of 1996. New, expanding markets, such as vinyl fence and decking, helped offset a slowing rate of growth in window extrusion. Pipe extrusion also had a solid year, machinery officials said.

In business deals, the biggest extrusion news in 1996 came in February, when HPM Corp., which makes single-screw extruders and screws in Mount Gilead, Ohio, merged into Los Angeles aerospace component supplier Stadco Inc. Davis-Standard reached into its wallet again to buy a German company that makes equipment for extrusion coating, cast film and sheet, called ER-WE-PA. Davis-Standard also bought the Hartig line of blow molding and extrusion machinery from Battenfeld Blowmolding Machines Inc.

Full-year 1996 data for Davis-Standard, of Pawcatuck, Conn., is not available yet. Through the first nine months of 1996, ended Sept. 28, the machinery and controls manufacturer reported $212.1 million in sales, up 3 percent from $206.6 million in the first nine months of 1995. But operating profit plunged 41.2 percent, to $18.1 million, from $30.8 million in the year-earlier period.

In its third-quarter report, the company, which ships machines around the world, blamed ``lower selling prices and lower unit volume in the higher-margin domestic business.''

The Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s Machinery Division tracks only single-screw extruders. Final-year numbers for 1996 are not available yet, but the sector showed year-to-year increases from 1993 through 1995. Upward momentum continued in 1996, machinery makers said.

``Construction remained pretty strong,'' said Hans-Jurgen Mat-thesius, vice president of the extrusion division at Krauss-Maffei Corp. in Florence, Ky. Building products such as window profiles, siding and pipe are key vinyl extrusion markets.

Matthesius believes an interesting thing happened: Firms that extrude building products expected a downturn, so they put off adding capacity.

``Now the fourth quarter, after the [presidential] election, all of them, all projects got approved. They realized they can't run production at a 100 percent utilization rate, so now they're ordering equipment.''

But home building seemed to finally cool off near the end of the year. For 1997, ``I predict a relatively strong first quarter, and then nobody knows,'' he said.

Matthesius said vinyl window extruders also were running at near capacity and, while growth is slowing, the market is still very strong. ``They don't predict 30 percent growth anymore, but they predict at least ... 10-15 percent, on average, a year.''

Glenn Anderson, marketing manager for extrusion at Cincinnati Milacron Inc., said vinyl windows have slowed along with the overall market.

``The demand for windows is going to increase by 6 or 7 percent, so it's not the double-digit growth,'' he said.

American Maplan Corp.'s Horst Eigruber said window extruders are still rolling. ``However, there are some companies which are struggling, mainly on the East Coast,'' he said.

In window extrusion, the big topic for the past several years has been super-high output extruders that crank through up to 1,000 pounds an hour, or five times the current industry average. Manufacturers said interest — and orders — should continue.

``There's no doubt that the major players are increasing their output capacities per extruder,'' Anderson said.

Two years ago, window maker Veka Inc. of Fombell, Pa., bought one of the high-output Milacron extruders, set up to extrude two profiles at once.

Eigruber agreed that large companies will jump in.

``It's the same as siding. Your conversion costs are dropping with the higher rates.''

Demand for plastic pipe should remain strong.

``I don't see double-digit growth in pipe, but I see pipe being in the 6 or 7 percent range next year. There's cautious optimism,'' said Anderson at Milacron's Cincinnati-based extrusion unit.

Matthesius called the 1996 pipe market ``surprisingly strong.''

Higher output also is a major issue in vinyl siding, said Eigruber of Maplan, based in McPherson, Kan.

``Siding is very healthy right now. At the moment, there's a big demand for the big lines,'' he said.

Milacron entered the siding market at the Interplas show last year in Birmingham, England. Anderson said siding should grow 3-5 percent this year.

Single-screw extruder maker Merritt Davis Corp. has seen growth in reclaim, specialty compounding and wire and cable coating, said Joe Altimari, vice president of sales.

``Strong markets are film and fiber reclaim,'' Altimari said. ``The tendency has been that people are going to much larger machines. A few years back it was a 41/2 and 6-inch machine. Now people are looking at 8-inch and 10-inch machines and looking at entire systems.''

Hamden, Conn.-based Merritt Davis has developed specialized machines that shred waste film and fiber, then reclaim and repelletize it.

``It's a real specialized market,'' Altimari said.

Another niche market the firm serves is narrow-width cast film and coating systems for laboratories and limited production.

Coextrusion to make multilayer film continues to be a strong market, according to Jan Ivey, president of Amelia, Ohio-based Black Clawson Sano Inc.

``There's going to be a major push by converters to upgrade existing equipment,'' he said.

Ivey also said second-tier film producers are moving into more-sophisticated production, including coextrusion.

``They may not buy a whole new line, but they will be looking at dies,'' he said.

In sheet, the days of tight supplies — and high prices — of PET resin means the market for PET sheet ``has just opened up incredibly,'' said Frank Nissel, president of Welex Inc. of Blue Bell, Pa.

``PET has now become a commodity polymer,'' Nissel said. ``The price of PET has come down from around 70 cents a pound to 45 cents a pound. It's had the greatest decline in price as any polymer, and so the market has just opened up incredibly.''

Nissel said sheet systems account for 90 percent of Welex's business.

Sales increased about 30 percent in 1996, he said.

``In general, sheet extrusion is extremely good. The whole rigid packaging business is going very, very well. We have never had a bigger backlog,'' Nissel said. ``Our backlog now is in excess of one year.''