CHICAGO (July 14, 2:10 p.m. EDT) — Robert Schad can remember when Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd., had the market for injection presses to mold PET preforms pretty much to itself.
Some two decades after PET soda bottles burst onto the scene — and with the frothy beer market just around the corner — the Canadian company founded by Schad remains the dominant preform player. But these days, Husky has plenty of company. And at NPE 2000, the list grew longer:
* After a long absence, Milacron Inc. jumped back into the preform wars, pairing an injection press with one of its Uniloy blow molders. Both machines use all-electric technology.
* Italy´s SIPA SpA, known for its blow molding machines, announced it has started to make injection presses for preforms.
Also touting their technology in Chicago were Netstal-Maschinen AG and Krauss-Maffei Kunststofftechnik GmbH, two companies already in the market.
What´s going on? Know all those peanut butter jars, the billions of water and soda bottles throughout the world and rolling around in your car? They were hatched as the test-tube-shaped blanks known as preforms. More companies want a piece of the action of what Milacron says is a worldwide market of 350 billion PET containers a year. (And that figure does not even include beer).
Schad did not look worried last month in Chicago.
"Very clearly the last year, we have reversed the trend of our competitors moving into the preform market. Our market share has increased in spite of these competitors coming in." he said.
Husky officials will not disclose a specific market share figure, beyond acknowledging that it´s more than 50 percent. Some packaging analysts and competitors think the number is much higher.
At the same time, Husky has embarked on a much-heralded strategy to expand into general purpose machines for custom molders, reducing its reliance on PET and thin-wall machines. Schad said that diversity was the real story for Husky at NPE.
"I think the key thing that we´re showing is a different Husky," he said.
Still, the company in Bolton, Ontario, continues to improve its PET technology. At NPE 1997, Husky introduced an Index preform press. It boasts a revolving turret block that carries up to four sets of preform cores through the molding sequence. By moving the preforms quickly out of the molding area for cooling, the Index slashes cycle times by 20-30 percent from traditional preform machines, Husky claims.
The first Index ran a 48-cavity mold. At NPE 2000, Husky ran a 60-cavity mold in a machine that takes up the same amount of space — effectively boosting productivity by 25 percent.
Husky has sold 118 Index machines since 1997. Most of those were purchased in the past year, the company said.
While preforms poured from the Index machine all NPE long, neither of the two newest players, Milacron and SIPA, displayed a preform press in Chicago.
During NPE week, you could see Milacron´s E-PET — if you wanted to take a Milacron shuttle flight to Toledo, Ohio, where Milacron developed the machine with a local engineering firm. Milacron officials said they withheld the actual E-PET from McCormick Place for competitive reasons. Milacron did show the Uniloy VersaPET all-electric blow molder at NPE 2000, blowing half-gallon PET milk bottles and 16-ounce bottles.
Milacron actually introduced its first preform molding press back in 1979, but dropped out of the market after a few years.
A 400-ton E-PET running a 48-cavity mold can power through 1,200 pounds of PET an hour, enough for 11,000 preforms. Barr Klaus, general manager of the new Preform Injection Systems Business unit, said the E-PET uses 50-70 percent less electricity than a comparable hydraulic machine.
"We´re seriously back in PET and it´s across the board," Klaus said "We think we have some unique new technology to bring to the PET market that offers significant new value to customers."
The E-PET, which Milacron says is the first all-electric preform injection molding machine, uses the company´s two-stage injection method that pairs a fixed-screw extruder feeding a shooting pot and a plunger to inject the plastic.
Milacron´s Plastics Technologies Group is based in Batavia, Ohio.
The Italian company, SIPA, has up until now made only single-step PET machines, which injection mold preforms then blow them into bottles in a single machine. Two-step systems, like Husky´s, that require two separate machines but they give higher output mark a new market for SIPA, according to Tom Talbot, president of SIPA North America in Atlanta.
SIPA´s PPS preform press is the first injection molding machine ever built by the company in Vittorio Veneto, Italy. SIPA did not show a PPS in Chicago, instead focusing on its related SFR blow molder, designed for a two-step setup. An SFR molded a soda bottle at NPE.
The SFR uses a rotary concept, with a new faster method to open the blow molds.
"We can now get into those 20,000-40,000 bottle-an-hour ranges. So this is obviously geared toward water and carbonated soft drinks," Talbot said.
SIPA´s one-step system peaks out at 20,000.
On the injection molding side, the PPS cools the preforms using a transfer device that moves them to a water-chilled system that holds the parts for six machine cycles.
Talbot said SIPA currently has no plans to go larger than 32- and 48 cavity-molds.
"We´re just now starting to develop the North American market," he said.
SIPA makes its own injection and blow molds. A few months ago, SIPA obtained U.S. mold capacity when its parent company, Zoppas Industries SpA, bought PET Mold Components Inc. in Tipp City, Ohio.
Netstal, based in Näfels, Switzerland, launched the most direct challenge to Husky two years ago at the K show in Germany. At K´98, Netstal fired up press with a 96-cavity mold. The company chose not to show a preform press at NPE 2000.
Netstal officials said they have sold more than 190 PET preform machines so far, evenly split between 48- and 96-cavity machines. The company expects to sell 50-60 this year, according to Dieter Klug, president and chief executive officer.
NPE continued a trend of smaller companies bringing preform molding in-house, said Harry Wowchuck, sales and marketing manager for PET systems for Netstal´s U.S. headquarters in Devens, Mass.
"They´re no longer afraid of getting into it," he said.
Beer could equal PET´s explosion into soft drinks, although questions remain as to which technology will win out. If it did happen quickly, Wowchuck said: "It certainly would overextend both Husky´s and Netstal´s capacity to put out machines."
Krauss-Maffei, based in Munich, Germany, also introduced its preform press at K´98. KM, which molded preforms on a 192-ton press during NPE 2000, is not trying to take on Husky directly. Its PETForm press has a vertical clamping unit.
"We wanted to establish ourselves in this marketplace and solidify our position," said Michael Santa, executive vice president of Krauss-Maffei Corp. in Florence, Ky.
Demag Ergotech GmbH of Schwaig, Germany, entered the PET preform press at K´98, but did not display one at NPE 2000. Demag´s machine does coinjection molding.