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The Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. has delayed the public release of its 1996 Machinery Division statistics — and top division officials will decide in May whether SPI should release them at all.

SPI collects data on machinery shipments throughout the year from machinery manufacturers who voluntarily provide the information. SPI puts the numbers together to get an industrywide report. Companies that participate get monthly reports.

SPI tracks shipments of injection molding machines, single-screw extruders, blow molding machines and auxiliary equipment. Traditionally, in early March, SPI has publicly announced the shipment numbers, which are reported by the trade press. But that might not happen this year — at least not until after the Machinery Division's spring meeting, May 5-7 in Scottsdale, Ariz., when the controversial subject will be discussed.

For several years, Machinery Division leaders have debated whether the numbers really paint an accurate picture, and complained that some major players have declined to participate.

Machinery Division Chairman Martin Stark said the issues include the reliability of the data and the confidentiality of companies that participate. Division leaders decided to hold off issuing the 1996 statistics so the issue could get a full airing at the Scottsdale meeting.

``The decision is to delay it until we have a chance to look at it in more detail,'' Stark said.

Until then, the 1996 numbers are being sent to machinery company participants only.

Stark and other division officials are concerned that the statistics may be misleading to people outside the machinery industry, including the press and security analysts who cover plastics. Stark is president of Bekum America Corp., a blow molding machinery supplier in Williamston, Mich.

Over the years, much of the controversy has come from numbers about imports, especially injection molding machines from Japan. But in recent years, Machinery Division officials have taken steps to improve the quality of import data.

First, because of serious questions about government-supplied import numbers, SPI stopped including Department of Commerce data, beginning with its annual machinery report for 1993. The trade group then began gathering its own import data, with information voluntarily provided by importers.

On the injection molding front, SPI has the cooperation of all but a few major importers. One significant exception has been Nissei Plastic Industrial Co. Ltd. of Japan, one of the world's highest-volume producers.

Nissei sells about 850 injection molding machines in North America a year, according to Shoichi Imai, president of Nissei America Inc. in Anaheim, Calif. According to SPI data — which do not include Nissei — 5,441 injection molding machines were sold in the United States in 1995, both U.S.-made and imports.

Other injection press importers that have declined to participate are Japan Steel Works Ltd. and Netstal-Maschinen AG.