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CHICAGO — Quick shipment to U.S. customers, including automotive molders, spurred Battenfeld GmbH's decision to begin U.S. production in Bellefonte, Pa., company officials said June 17 in announcing the news. Another reason: low U.S. labor costs.

After two years of publicly pondering the issue, Battenfeld (Booths S1400, S1800) made it official at a news conference Tuesday morning at NPE 1997 in Chicago.

The German machinery manufacturer — which already builds extruders and film-making equipment in the United States—is now manufacturing its large-tonnage HM injection molding machines here.

The first U.S.-made HM, with 1,100 tons of clamping force, is molding automotive grilles at Battenfeld's NPE booth.

In other news, Battenfeld officials said they have decided not to manufacture tie-barless injection presses or two-platen presses. Those technologies are among the hottest trends today in the injection molding machine industry.

Battenfeld also is in no hurry to expand its limited line of all-electric injection molding presses, company officials said.

The firm hopes to build about 10 HM machines a year in Pennsylvania. But that number may be conservative, based on the machine's early success in Europe.

Battenfeld introduced the HM at K'95, the huge German trade show held in November 1995 in Dusseldorf. The company has sold 120 HMs since then, twice as many as it had planned, according to Helmut Eschwey, member of the managing board of SMS AG, which owns Battenfeld.

HM presses range in clamping force from 300-4,400 tons.

``This is a size range that requires, in this market, quick deliveries, and we are currently not able to meet deliveries with machines shipped from Germany,'' said Wolfgang Meyer, president of Battenfeld of America Inc., based in West Warwick, R.I.

Meyer said Battenfeld, which only recently began marketing the HM machines outside Europe, has sold just three HMs so far in North America.

The Bellefonte plant, in central Pennsylvania, currently employs 100 people making steel forming equipment. The plant is owned by SMS Engineering, which is part of SMS AG.

At the news conference, Eschwey acknowledged that labor costs also influenced the decision.

``Definitely, the U.S. has lower labor costs and has achieved a high level of productivity. This was very attractive to us,'' he said.

Injection molding machines account for half of Battenfeld's total annual sales of $500 million. The other half is about evenly split between pipe and profile extrusion and film and sheet extrusion equipment, according to the company.

Eschwey said that pipe and profile equipment sales have increased by 49 percent this year. Injection molding machinery sales grew 24 percent. Film and sheet equipment sales gained by 21 percent.

Battenfeld also introduced its new T model of small injection molding machine, which is offered in clamping forces of 55 and 110 tons.

T machines require 30 percent less floor space than the company's CDC series of injection molding machines, according to the company.