APPLIANCE SHIPMENTS MAY GO DOWN IN 1997

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Major appliance markets probably will slip a bit after a record-breaking 1996.

Last year's strong housing markets and lower-than-expected interest rates spurred appliance purchases as consumers set up house, remodeled or upgraded. Late 1996 data suggested appliance shipments in the year reached 53.7 million units, about 5 percent higher than in 1995, according to an official with the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers. The total includes U.S. domestic and exports shipments and U.S. imports.

``We expect shipments will be down about 0.3 percent in 1997,'' said John Jiambalvo, AHAM's executive director of portable appliances.Jiambalvo said the forecast is still good news for the industry, which has benefited from ``the third-longest recovery cycle in the post-war period.''

Jiambalvo predicts U.S. interest rates will remain relatively low, keeping up momentum in housing purchases and remodeling activity. New product introductions also will keep consumers interested in new refrigerators, ranges and washers, he said by telephone from AHAM's office in Chicago.

``The real price of appliances hasn't gone up but more features have been added.''

Appliance activity has not been felt by many processors, however. Maytag Corp. and other origingal equipment manufacturers have trimmed their supplier base. As a result, fewer molders, extruders and thermoformers have cashed in on the manufacturing boom.

An HPM Corp. official sees continued strong machinery purchases among appliance OEMs, partly because of parts consolidation and metal replacement. HPM has an order backlog for appliance OEMs, including part of an 18-press order for GE Appliances' Louisville, Ky., plant said Brian Bishop, HPM's general manager for injection molding. GE Appliances will use the presses to mold washing machine tubs in a conversion from metal.

Appliance OEMs are retooling for new product designs that offer more opportunity for plastics applications, said Len Swatkowski, director of engineering services for AHAM. Refrigerator makers, for example, could replace some metal parts in the gasket area with more insulative plastic parts to cut down on heat transfer into the refrigerator. Maytag is nearly done with a $180 million retooling of its Galesburg, Ill., refrigerator plant but a spokesman said it was premature to comment on plastics changes in the Newton, Iowa, firm's programs.

Polyurethane insulation is the most active plastics-related area for refrigerators, said Swatkowski. Producers are trying to reduce refrigerator energy consumption by 30 percent by 2003. As part of the drive they want effective insulation while minimizing use of ozone-depleting blowing agents. PU foam promises to continue as the standard insulation.

Buoyant U.S. appliance markets have enticed a major European firm to plan on making high-end dishwashers in New Bern, N.C. Bosch-Siemens Hausgerate GmbH of Munich, Germany, will invest $32.2 million in the facility, which will be capable of making 200,000 units a year.

The dishwashers, however, will have stainless steel inner linings rather than plastic linings typical of popular U.S.-made dishwashers. Bosch-Siemens, with its dishwasher imports of about 50,000 a year, has been a relatively small player in the U.S. market totaling more than 4 million units a year.