U.S. consumers just keep on spending, and much of what they buy — from screwdrivers to carryout salads — comes packaged in plastic that was shaped on thermoforming machines.
"We've seen a substantial upturn. We've been very busy," said James Tradesco, national sales manager at Sencorp Systems Inc., which makes roll-fed thermoformers and extruders for foam used in meat trays and fast-food packaging.
Sencorp this year expanded its factory in Hyannis, Mass., on Cape Cod, by 65,000 square feet.
Cut-sheet machines, which make up the other segment of thermoforming equipment, continue their robust growth thanks to demand for ever-bigger machinery, industry officials said.
Larry Richardson, president of LR Equipment Corp. in Beaverton, Mich., said the market for roll-fed machines historically has been stable from year to year.
"But we've seen an upturn in the last couple of years," he said.
Although the overall market is strong, new trim-in-place machines have not been in great demand in the United States, several machinery executives said. The technology, which trims parts in the mold instead of in a separate step after molding, is popular in Europe.
"There hasn't been a real big (U.S.) demand for it," said Richardson, whose company has offered trim-in-place machines for several years. "There's been interest, but it has quite a few limitations."
He said containers have to be designed specifically to run on the machine, and the press takes longer to set up. U.S. customers "want to run anything and everything on that piece of machinery," he said.
The OMV USA Machine Division, in Genoa City, Wis., has specialized in polypropylene forming machines. At NPE 2000, OMV will run a coextrusion line feeding a big E-76 thermoformer whipping out deep-draw PP cups at a rate of 2,200 pounds an hour. The entire production line is more than 100 feet long, said OMV President Kent Johansson.
Down the road, in 2001, OMV plans to move beyond PP machines, with a large-platen machine for running resins such as polystyrene and PET, Johansson said. The company, a unit of Verona, Italy-based Isap/OMV Group SpA, wants to set up U.S. manufacturing, on its own or through a joint venture, he said.
Custom Manufacturers Inc. in Gladwin, Mich., makes both roll-fed and cut-sheet machines. Sales manager Brad Moore said new-machine sales were "a little slower" in 1999. But strong demand for rebuilt machines more than made up for that.
Turning to cut-sheet machines, the explosion of twin-sheet thermoformed products continues. Appliance interiors, pallets, even boats are being thermoformed.
"We've had a very active year. We just shipped a big lab machine with an 8-by-12-foot mold area," said Thomas Pohlman, president of Modern Machinery of Beaverton Inc. "The products are getting bigger and bigger in thermoforming."
Sales were up about 25 percent at the Beaverton, Mich., company in 1999.
Another maker of cut-sheet machines, Maac Machinery Corp., is doubling its space by moving from Itasca, Ill., to a new building in nearby Carol Stream, Ill. The factory will open in January.