Technology spurs blow molding advances

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Caroline Seidel K 2013 show attendees checked out the new Kautex all-electric blow molding machine.

The U.S. market for blow molding machines is more mature than in fast-growth developing nations of Asia and Eastern Europe, but business should heat up here, as technological improvements lure buyers — and polyethylene and polypropylene prices stabilize from the shale gas boom, according to machinery executives.

Many report that North American business is strong right now, thanks to automotive and new packaging designs with even thinner walls.

Kautex Maschinenbau GmbH, a major player in multilayer gas tanks for cars, launched the KBB line of extrusion blow molders to expand in consumer packaging.

Bill Farrant noted that Kautex started out as a packaging equipment player. "It's really coming back to our roots," said Farrant, president and CEO of the U.S. unit, Kautex Machines Inc. in North Branch, N.J. "We're pushing hard to the packaging market, not only stand-alone machines but also turnkey systems. We're getting very much into line engineering."

At the same time, he said: "We're still doing very well in the automotive business, in the fuel-tank business. There'll be more machines going in next year and into 2015." Car production is up, and suppliers and automakers are willing to invest in more-complex technology if it lets them make less-expensive tanks over time, Farrant said.

One example from Kautex: a machine that robotically inserts interior components into the parison, before it gets blow molded into the tank. The Chevy Equinox tank made on a Kautex machine won first place in the industrial applications category at the Society of Plastics Engineers Annual Blow Molding Conference's competition in October.

The Kautex KBB packaging machine, introduced at K 2013 in Düsseldorf Germany, is the company's first move into all-electric machines — and that remains another big, ongoing trend in blow molding. Bekum Maschinenfabriken GmbH launched its first all-electric machine, the Eblow, at K 2010, and this year again highlighted the Eblow at K 2013.

And Bekum and Kautex certainly were not alone at the blow molding K-show halls of Messe Düsseldorf GmbH.

"Every major manufacturer had something in an electric configuration on display. I think this was the first time we saw everybody being electric," said Gary Carr, national sales director of Bekum America Corp. in Williamston, Mich.

"Business was vigorous through the entire year," Carr said. He noted that most new machinery sales seem to be for new projects, or because of business shifting around to new molders.

Carr said the firm is getting orders from a diversified market mix, including medical, personal care and agricultural chemicals. "That's the thing that makes me optimistic about next year," he said. "It's not just one sector, and that's healthy."

All-electric blow molding machines are becoming more common. However, some companies have been making them for many years. Werner Amsler decided to focus only on all-electric reheat stretch blow molding machines when he founded W. Amsler Equipment in 1994.

His daughter, Heidi Amsler, sales and marketing manager, said the company's first machine is still running. "Our machines are made for the custom blow molder. We want the machines to be used for more-complicated shapes," she said. And Amsler said lightweighting is moving into liquid detergent and other markets beyond PET preforms, fueling demand for machines.

All-electric machines account for about 80 percent of sales at Italian extrusion blow molding machine producer Magic SpA, according to Bernie Graebener, vice president of Blow Mold Solutions, Magic's U.S. agent in Elwood, N.J. All-electric Magic presses can produce containers from a half-liter to 40 liters. Hybrid models go from 1-50 liters.

At K 2013, Magic re-entered the injection stretch blow molding machinery market for PET, showing an all-electric, single-stage press. Graebener said the line of BME machines has a 65 percent energy savings over hydraulic competitors.

Graebener reports that all-electric blow molding machines are more popular in Europe than in the United States, "where it's been slower to take off." As a result, Magic's U.S. business has been "up and down," he said. "It hasn't been steady."

U.S. customers are paying more attention to energy consumption — and even air consumption in blow molding — said David Raabe, director of blow molding technology and key account converter business at Krones Inc. in Franklin, Wis. Space also is a big issue, so Krones developed the ErgoBloc L, an integrated line with a Contiform blow molder, a labeler and a filling line, all in one. It takes up 30 percent less space than a blow molder-filler block, company officials said.

Raabe said lightweighting and faster mold changeovers also are important. They are part of the overall trend to lower the total cost to produce a bottle.

He said the North American market is mature, and "very competitive." Raabe thinks there are a lot of blow molding machines that are 10-15 years old. That should lead to replacement business since "you're light-years ahead now" with new machines, he added.

In late November, Sidel Inc. introduced a new half-liter PET water bottle, called RightWeight, that weighs just 9.95 grams (34 percent lighter than a standard bottle), yet gives top-load performance of 33 kilograms, using standard caps. The new geometric shape helps eliminate "over-squeeze" when consumers open ultralight bottles and the contents spill out.

Sidel's U.S. operation is in Norcross, Ga.

In 2012, Uniloy Milacron enjoyed its strongest year since the blow molding machinery business was acquired by Milacron LLC, said Dave Lawrence, president of Milacron Plastics Machinery and DME Mold Technologies. "And 2013 will be close behind — fueled mainly by growth in non-traditional markets," he said.

He said the U.S. market "remains largely flat, and we expect 2014 to be a good year, on par with the last two and perhaps slightly stronger."

"Our global business model will help us increase our competitiveness and reach."

Graham Engineering Corp. President David Schroeder said money was freed up at U.S. blow molders in the second half of 2013. "We saw some people pull the trigger and jump in, and actually place orders," he said from the company in York, Pa.

Graham also is keeping busy rebuilding and retrofitting its equipment at customer plants.

R&B Plastics Machinery LLC generated much more business from new blow molding machines than rebuilding, said Dave Corson, director of sales and marketing for the company in Saline, Mich. — 70 percent new to 30 percent rebuild. Sales of blow molds declined, however.

"Next year we've got a mix in blow molding, of wheels, shuttles and rebuilds," he said, noting that business is about evenly divided between those three areas.

Robert Jackson said the U.S. market for accumulator-head blow molding machines remains at about 60-70 units a year — but that includes only about 10 new machines. Used iron continues to dominate. He said accumulator-head manufacturers need some new technology to juice sales.

"The industry can't start until something is wonderfully invented or if we run out of old machines, dinosaurs that can be rebuilt," said Jackson, president of Jackson Machinery Inc. in Port Washington, Wis. But he said: "Somewhere down the road we're going to run out of used machines." Jackson thinks that will happen in the next five years.

Already, there are two or three major automotive-related blow molding projects next year. And Jackson said the shale gas phenomenon has huge implications for blow molding.

"It's coming along, but nobody really understands how much of an event this is going to be," Jackson said. "But we are going to be making polyethylene. As that bubble hits, it will become more advantageous to mold your PE car parts in the United States, and assemble in the United States."

When will the boom begin? Jackson thinks the blow molding industry will see some gains from shale gas over the next three years, but the dramatic difference will come in 2017 and beyond.

"We are going to become the manufacturing resources for the world," Jackson said.