The ``High Torque War'' heated up the compounding extruder arena in 1997, as several competitors joined Werner & Pfleiderer Corp. and Berstorff Corp. in introducing new high-output machines.
New high-torque players include Davis-Standard Corp., Farrel Corp. and Welding Engineers Inc., which sells Toshiba extruders.
The year ended with the surprise Dec. 5 announcement that Berstorff was leaving Charlotte, N.C., to move in with Krauss-Maffei Corp., its sister firm in Florence, Ky. Both are owned by Mannesmann AG in Germany, which is reorganizing its plastics machinery companies into one business group.
Going into 1998, builders of compounding extruders say growing acceptance of the high-torque models and a solid U.S. economy should keep sales up in this cyclical segment of the equipment industry.
W&P and Berstorff introduced their high-torque compounders to the U.S. market in 1996.
W&P calls its machine the ZSK Mega compounding extruder. Now, said Asmut Kahns, vice president of sales and marketing at W&P, ``that's basically most of what we're selling.''
Kahns said W&P, in Ramsey, N.J., has sold more complete systems lately, instead of just single machines.
Business is good right now because several key compounding sectors, such as polyolefins and engineering resins, are on the high end of the cycle at the same time, Kahns said.
``We're very optimistic because the backlog already is there for a good '98,'' he said in December.
The new high-output machines offer much higher torque than the machines they replace and speeds topping 1,200 revolutions per minute.
Compounders and resin makers are testing the new machines across a wide range of resins, and finding some surprising results, industry officials say. They have learned that the quality of some resins increased because the material stays in the extruder for a shorter period of time, said James Schak, director of marketing and sales at Welding Engineers in Blue Bell, Pa. Schak said improved resin quality gives another selling point for marketers of high-torque extruders, beyond the higher throughput.
Welding Engineers has sold 11 twin-screw compounding extruders from Toshiba Machine Co. Ltd. in Japan since the two companies signed an agreement in 1995, Schak said. Toshiba in 1997 introduced the SS compounding extruder, which can run as high as 1,450 revolutions per minute. ``It also has 15 percent higher torque per free volume'' than competing machines, he said.
At Berstorff, Gene Stroupe, vice president of standard products, said the ZE Ultra Torque is winning new customers.
``There's a lot of testing taking place to find out the benefits in certain markets. We're seeing cases where the [throughput] rates can easily double. We've actually seen one case where the rates have almost tripled,'' he said.
Farrel of Ansonia, Conn., jumped into the high-torque, high-speed market in 1997. Mike Hotchkiss, director of sales for plastics machinery, said Farrel has seen steady, moderate sales gains in its compounding products: twin-screw extruders and continuous and batch mixers. Resin makers continue to ramp up the capacities of their reactors, so they need high-output machines, he said.
Publicly held Farrel, which also makes equipment for the rubber industry, rebounded financially through the first nine months of 1997.
During the period, the firm said sales rose about 30 percent, to $64.3 million, up from $49.1 million in the first nine months of 1996. Farrel also reported a $1.5 million profit, after losing $1 million in the period a year earlier.
Hot markets for Farrel include the plastic lumber business, which blends plastic and wood flour.
``Also, PVC compounding seems to be making a big comeback,'' Hotchkiss said. ``Making PVC compounds for wire and cable is big business, and medical-grade PVC seems to be catching on again.''
Davis-Standard joined the high-torque crowd, showing a twin-screw machine dubbed the Alpha Class at NPE.
``For us it's looking very positive,'' said Fred Bartkiewicz, vice president of sales and engineering. ``We've made inroads with the two-screw compounding program, and it's shown continued growth.''
Century Extruders, the machine-building division of screw and barrel maker Century Inc. of Traverse City, Mich., also manufactures a high-torque compounding extruder.
As a new player in extruders, the company is trying to sell its service level and ability to design custom machines, according to Jack Kubica, marketing manager.
``That market is very, very active from what we've seen,'' he said.
Another Michigan company, B&P Process Equipment Systems LLC in Saginaw, has enjoyed success in masterbatch color compounding, said Fukuji Soatome, director of sales and marketing.
Soatome believes the cyclical nature of compounding will catch up with the industry.
``I don't really think the market is going to continue growing,'' he said. ``I think we're probably coming to the tail end of the cycle. Maybe it will last another year or so, but I think definitely the market is past the peak.''
American Leistritz Extruder Corp. of Somerville, N.J., enjoyed a record sales year in 1997, said Charlie Martin, national sales manager. Martin said the firm sold the same number of machines as in recent years, about 50.
``But what's pumped us up is we're doing more complete systems, especially in film and sheet,'' he said.
Leistritz is a leading maker of direct extrusion equipment, which compounds the resin and processes it directly into a finished product, skipping the pellet-making process.