1997 is a hard act to follow, say executives at thermoforming equipment suppliers Brown Machine and Maac Machinery Corp., pacesetters in both technology and sales.
Brown's cut-sheet market, slack in 1996, ``came back with a resurgence,'' rising 50 percent in '97, said Brown Vice President Bill Kent. Though the Beaverton, Mich., firm's roll-fed and in-line machines for thin-gauge applications rode a less-dramatic crest, that market was up too, 25 percent from the year before, Kent said by telephone Jan. 15.
Maac upped its overall unit sales for cut-sheet formers roughly 29 percent, from 35 units in 1996 to about 45 machines last year, with NPE providing a midyear boost, said Paul Alongi, president. Like most firms, Maac will be tailing NPE leads into 1998 and beyond, he said.
Competitors in the cut-sheet segment, Brown and Maac both find their niche in large rotary pressure and twin-sheet formers packed with process controls and other options, and rigged for special materials and applications.
``In years gone by, people would look for a general-purpose machine, good at everything,'' Alongi said from Maac's Itasca, Ill., headquarters.
A dozen years back, only the top 5 percent of industrial thermoforming firms knew how to apply more-specialized equipment, but today the top 50 percent require such machines, he said. Plus, most of the ``standard, older thermoformers out there are not retrofittable'' to the point of meeting today's tougher standards, he noted, fueling demand for newer, pricier machines.
``It would be like having an old car and asking could you put air bags on for me,'' Alongi said.
He expects that trend to keep Maac's sales climbing in 1998, though not as high as in 1997.
Machines also are getting even larger, Kent said, and 1998 could see ``mold sizes not even running out there today.''
Polyethylene still drives the industrial market, though ``the vinyl side of automotive is booming,'' both for OEM parts and the aftermarket, Alongi said. Also strong: shower stalls, bathtubs and wall surrounds.
Though original equipment manufacturers make up a chunk of Maac's business, demand for its machines also is driven by processor customers, some of whom—like Triangle Plastics Inc. of Independence, Iowa—are growing through acquisitions and need improved efficiencies for bigger operations, Alongi said. He predicted Triangle's course could set the pace for more consolidation among thermoformers in 1998.
A much-smaller supplier to the cut-sheet market, Central Automated Machinery Inc., also sells large, specialized machines. But the Gladwin, Mich., firm weathered a 1997 that was ``not so hot,'' said Bruce Smith, president.
``It was less than we expected,'' Smith said. ``We're hoping that some of the things that didn't materialize last year will this year.''
Recreational vehicles and marine are two markets that could see more activity in 1998, he said. ``I think we'll hear a lot about the marine market,'' with some manufacturers of large pleasure boats looking to replace fiberglass hulls with thermoformed ones, Smith said. That business may not take shape right away, he added: ``The machines for that take a lot of lead time.''
Though some industrial machines come with a hefty price tag, the cut-sheet segment makes up just 25-30 percent of the total U.S. market for thermoforming equipment sales — which will hit nearly $100 million this year, according to Cleveland-based researchers Freedonia Group Inc.
To determine the lion's share of that market, says Kent, follow the resin trail to continuous, roll-fed applications — mainly packaging.
Kent Johansson, president of OMV USA Machine Division in Genoa City, Wis., said his firm's big seller last year in North America was not roll-fed but in-line equipment, mainly for polypropylene food packaging.
``A lot of people are switching to in-line from roll-fed because you have tremendous cost savings in manufacturing,'' including from energy and labor, he said.
He pegged OMV's North American in-line sales at $15 million to $18 million for 1997. He said he expects that to grow to roughly $25 million by 1999.
While the domestic market for Sencorp Systems Inc.'s roll-fed equipment is ``holding its own,'' its base abroad is broadening, especially for food trays and other packaging, as more countries improve their economies, said Tony Giavannoni, president.
In mid-1997, the Hyannis, Mass., firm announced that Italian R.I.G.O. Group srl of Milan would build Sencorp's Series HP 1000 trim-in-place machines — used to make refrigerator liners. The R.I.G.O.-made machines will hit the European market this fall at K'98 in Dusseldorf, Germany.