Sales of blow molding machinery should hold steady or advance only a little during 1996, building on a less-than-banner year in 1995, according to industry leaders. Growth of blow molding has been spurred for the past year by the packaging industry's continued gain in North American and foreign markets. Beverage bottle makers followed their customers to China, Thailand, Vietnam and other Far Eastern countries to meet increasing demand.
In addition, strong growth also is expected in the beverage and food packaging industry in South America, led by Brazil and Argentina.
Kathleen O'Brien, an industry analyst for Cleveland-based Freedonia Group, foresees stronger growth in the long term. She predicted that sales of blow molding machinery will increase in the range of 12 percent annually through the year 2000.
In a study published in May, O'Brien said the machinery industry will benefit from expansion of PET supply to answer the needs of the packaging industry, and will represent the fastest growth of all the plastic machinery sectors.
Although the use of blow molded bottles in the carbonated soft drink area and certain personal-care products has likely peaked, the study said penetration will occur in containers for fruit juice, alternative beverages, bottled water, condiments and other food products.
The study predicted demand for blow molding machinery in the United States to reach $490 million by 2000, compared with $255 million in 1994.
For Bekum America Corp., of Williamston, Mich., 1995 was a roller-coaster year for blow molding machinery.
``We were very strong in sales at the beginning of the year,'' said President Martin Stark. ``That was because we were catching up with a backlog from '94, which was a very good year.''
Stark said sales slowed in the spring and summer, and then picked up after the K'95 show in Dusseldorf, Germany, in October.
``What we are telling customers now is that they can expect lead times of anywhere from six weeks to four months, depending on what machine they are buying, and what the applications are,'' he said. ``1995 has been very strong for the high-output blow molding machines, because of the continuing high demand for PET in the packaging industry, but we are not really big in that area.''
While Stark would not share actual sales figures for Bekum, he said customers are looking for more advancement in control systems, and reduced cycle times.
``Speed continues to be the most important thing. There are always new additions and refinements to machines,'' Stark said, ``but there really isn't any breakthrough technology that has changed the basic machine drastically.''
The financial crisis in Mexico and that country's still-cloudy economic future has had a significant effect on Bekum, Stark said. Expectations that prospec-tive Mexican machine customers would be able to make purchases in 1995 were not borne out as the financial crisis there continued.
``The Mexican market is totally gone for us,'' Stark said. ``Who can say whether it will be there in 1996 or not?''
He said the company did do significant business in Central America, including Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica, and that Far Eastern markets were also active.
``We can hope that '96 will be as good as 1995,'' he said. ``But there is no way to say.''
``I can say that '95 was a good year, not a blow-out year, but a good year,'' said Dane Belden, president of Battenfeld Blowmolding Machines Inc., of Boonton, N.J. ``We exceeded our goals for sales.''
Belden would not give actual numbers, but he said the demand for both accumulator-head and continuous-extrusion blow molding machines (the two types Battenfeld makes) had been good.
``I suspect that in the coming year the dollars may flatten out,'' he said, ``but that sales may continue about the same.''
He said foreign markets present an interesting contrast in the coming year.
``While most of the interna-tional sales are handled by another division of our parent company,'' he said, ``I can say that there are some soft pockets, like Russia, where there is no business, and Europe, where economic conditions are not as good as they were.''
He said sales to the Far East and Asia have been very strong, and should continue.
``We have had great interest in the new reduced-flash, 3-D process machines,'' he said. ``They lend themselves to producing parts, like automotive duct work, and gas tank filler pipes, and they increase efficiency and cycle times.
For Cincinnati Milacron Corp., sales of blow molding machinery advanced about 5 percent in 1995 over 1994. Dale Werle, general manager of Milacron's blow molding machinery business, based in Batavia, Ohio, termed 1995 a ``good, but not a banner year.''
``I would attribute that to an overall flatness in the automo-tive market in general,'' he said. ``Most of our area of concentration is in industrial blow molding with accumulator head machines, so we are affected by that.''
Still, there is increasing interest in the machines with larger accumulator heads, and those machines will continue to lead sales.
``There is a great amount of interest in the machines with 50-pound or larger heads,'' according to Werle. ``We introduced two new heads this year - 60-pound and 100-pound - and those have sold very well because they facilitate the molding of large panels, containers and the many materials and color changes that have become a hot part of the industry.''
Though not wanting to sound any alarms, Werle said Milacron predicts 1996 will be a year of small, if any growth, in sales. Instead, they will remain at the 1995 levels.
``We look forward to the year, and to good sales, if not great,'' he said. ``Resin prices are coming down, and other sectors than automotive may be even stronger.''
Foreign markets, particularly Latin America and Asia-Pacific, will remain strong in 1996, following a very good year in 1995, in which Milacron filled several large orders in China.
``In general, we can promise lead times of only five or six weeks,'' he said.
``Because of the fact that most of our machines share common designs and some parts, we can customize them to fit a customer's order in a short amount of time.''
Kemp Shepard, vice president of marketing at Wilmington Machinery of Wilmington, N.C., said smaller machinery makers are looking toward continued growth in the packaging sector to spur sales.
``Packaging is looking good, but quite honestly the real growth in packaging is PET,'' he said. Wilmington, which makes rotary wheel blow molding machines for such products as motor oil and antifreeze, does not make blow machines for processing PET.
``We're cautiously optimistic about 1996,'' he said. ``For new applications, like fuel tanks and 55-gallon drums, it's very optimistic. For other industrial parts, we're probably going to see less growth this year, and 1996 may be a flat year.''