In North America, PET soda bottle growth remains bogged down in the single digits, but the outlook is brighter in 1998 for two big conversion markets: PET in food packaging and beer.
Meanwhile, high density polyethylene consumer bottles remain stagnant. Industrial HDPE parts, such as large containers and automotive parts, should continue their strong growth, according to executives of blow molding machinery companies.
Yes, 1998 could be the year you order a cold one in plastic — provided you live in the right test-market area. PET beer bottles already have been introduced in Australia and England.
Jean-Guy Delage, president of Sidel Inc. in Norcross, Ga., thinks there will be significant beer test marketing in the United States this year. Sidel's parent, Groupe Sidel, signaled a major commitment to the beer market in mid-1997 when it conducted a stock swap with another French company, Gebo Industries SA. The deal married Sidel, a major blow molding machine maker, with Gebo, a leading supplier of conveying systems and production lines to the worldwide beer industry.
Tom Talbott, vice president of sales and marketing at Nissei ASB Co., also is bullish on beer.
``If you look longer range, I'm convinced there will be some kind of penetration into the beer market with PET packages,'' Talbott said.
In North America, new sizes for soft drinks and water also will help offset maturity in the 2-liter bottle market for PET, machinery officials said.
Low PET resin prices will help PET gain ground in food.
``It's not only conversion from glass, it's also from other types of plastics,'' Talbott said.
Food and pharmaceutical packaging are major markets fueling equipment sales for Atlanta-based Nissei ASB.
``Our growth this year will be 30-40 percent,'' Talbott said.
He said decisions to convert packaging materials don't happen overnight — even with cheap resin. ``It has taken the marketplace a while to become comfortable with the fact that PET is readily available and at reasonable prices,'' he said. ``For the long term, it looks like that will continue.''
On the HDPE front, that resin already has seen most of the easy blow molding conversions in packaging. Motor oil, household cleaners and personal-care products have been bottled in HDPE for years.
Martin Stark, president of Bekum America Corp., said the PE bottle market is growing about 3-4 percent a year. Bekum, in Williamston, Mich., had a good year. NPE 1997 helped, but not right away.
``We felt we had a super show with good people showing up, good discussions and good projects. We really thought orders would roll in like crazy, but there was silence for two months. Then orders started rolling in,'' Stark said.
The growth in automotive parts, such as automotive fuel tanks, spurred Germany's Krupp Kunststofftechnik GmbH to begin U.S. manufacturing of extrusion blow molding machines. Krupp, through its U.S. unit Krupp Plastics & Rubber Machinery Inc., built a 38,500-square-foot factory in Somerville, N.J.
Krupp had imported blow molding machines into the United States for more than 30 years.
Wilmington Machinery, which makes wheel machines for bottles, decided to capitalize on the growing large-part sector in 1997. At NPE in Chicago, the Wilmington, N.C., firm introduced an industrial blow molding machine that replaces an accumulator head with an intermittent reciprocating-screw extruder linked with a side-feed head.
``It'll drop 15-pound parts in up to three layers,'' said Kemp Shepard, Wilmington's vice president of marketing. He said visitors to the company's NPE booth showed strong interest in using the machine to make foam-core parts.
Shepard said HDPE bottle molding ``is very slow'' going into 1998.
Some segments of the HDPE packaging market are promising, said John Francis, marketing director of plastics machinery at Johnson Controls Inc. in Manchester, Mich.
``Where we're seeing a lot of growth potential is still within the juice, milk and water industry, primarily with the single-serve containers that they're coming out with,'' Francis said.
In accumulator-head blow molding, Francis said the automotive market has seen significant new blow molding conversions, including dashboards and the rear deck.