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NASHVILLE, TENN. — The Composites Institute said 1997 should mark the sixth straight growth year for shipments, with the largest market segment, transportation, topping 1 billion pounds.

Total shipments should hit 3.27 billion pounds this year, a 1.6 percent gain over 3.22 million pounds in 1996. The 1996 figure also represents a 1.6 percent increase over 1995.

Those modest increases mean composites growth in 1996 and 1997 has fallen below the rate of overall economic growth for the first time in several years. But industry economist Catherine Gillis said that, over the long term, composites should grow 1.5 times the inflation-adjusted gross domestic product.

Gillis said double-digit composites growth has ended, and composites instead will track the current moderate levels of economic growth.

Gillis, keynote speaker Jan. 27 to kick off the three-day International Composites Expo '97 in Nashville, noted the industry is trying to develop potentially big new markets, such as highway products. However, those markets remain too small to offset poor showings in mature ones such as boats, which she said could decline by as much as 10 percent in 1997. New manufacturing techniques also will drive future growth.

The U.S. economy should grow 2-2.5 percent this year, predicted Gillis, manager of market research and planning at Vetrotex CertainTeed Corp. of Valley Forge, Pa.

``We're in a situation now with a very extraordinary mix of low inflation, positive growth and low unemployment,'' Gillis said.

Catherine Randazzo, executive director of the Composites Institute, noted that through 1996, shipments have grown for five straight years since the recession of 1991.

``In summary, 1996 was a decent year for composites shipments, and 1997 will likely see similar, overall shipment volume,'' she said.

According to figures Randazzo released in Nashville, all markets should see growth in 1997 except marine and appliance/business equipment.

The two largest markets, transportation and construction, will show a small growth rate, but Gillis said the automotive and home building industries seem to have shaken off their tendency for volatile swings.

The transportation sector grew 1.7 percent in 1996, to 998.5 billion. Institute officials originally thought transportation, which accounts for nearly one-third of composites shipments, would top the 1 billion mark in 1996. That did not happen, but it should this year.

Riding a strong year for home building, construction, the second-largest market, grew 4.1 percent in 1996, to 655.1 million pounds. Construction should increase 1.6 percent in 1997, to reach 665.8 million pounds. Randazzo said sales of existing homes also were surprisingly strong, at a record 4 million.

``These high numbers support sales of traditional composite applications in kitchens and bathrooms, as well as panels for residential applications,'' she said.

Composites also are beginning to be used in load-bearing bridges.

About 3,000 people were expected to attend the conference, held Jan. 27-29. The New York-based Composites Institute is a division of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.

Here is a report on other markets:

After declining in 1996, corrosion-resistant equipment should grow 6.1 percent in 1997, to 404.2 million pounds. The semiconductor industry, which was flat last year, expects to add new plants. A 1998 environmental regulation deadline will help sales rebound for underground storage tanks. Phenolic grating for offshore oil and gas platforms continue to report strong sales.

After growing for five years, the marine sector dipped 1.1 percent in 1996, to 367.9 million pounds. The trade association thinks marine will decline again this year. Sales of personal watercraft have slowed, as most people who want one already have one.

Electrical/electronic shipments totaled 318.8 million pounds in 1996, up 1.3 percent from the year before. Shipments should grow 2.3 percent this year, to 326.2 million.

Consumer products — such as ladders, satellite dishes and fishing poles — should grow the fastest this year, at 6.8 percent, to reach 207.3 million pounds. In 1996, the segment grew 5.5 percent.

Appliances/business equipment should decline this year to 173.1 million pounds, down 2.1 percent from the 1996 level of 176.9 million pounds. That sector was the fastest-growing composites market in 1996.

Aircraft/aerospace/defense, which was unchanged in 1996 at 23.7 million pounds, will recover with a small 1.7 percent increase this year to reach 24.1 million pounds.

Strong sales in the commercial aircraft business will lead the way. But Randazzo said carbon fiber supplies tightened in late 1996, a condition that has carried over to this year.