Compounding extruder manufacturers say U.S. sales are oozing along, like the tail-end drool of a color purging.
Slow and squishy.
``Overall, the compounding machinery market is still way down from the levels of three and four years ago,'' said Asmut Kahns, vice president of sales and marketing for Coperion Corp., the largest maker of compounding extruders.
U.S. sales are flat this year for Coperion of Ramsey, N.J. The company makes Werner & Pfleiderer extruders and Buss kneaders. Kahns said resin manufacturers are buying few compounding machines. Independent compounders have picked up ``slightly, with an emphasis on slightly,'' he said.
Coperion and several other machinery makers do report decent sales of extruders to produce color concentrates, but demand remains slack for big extruders to pump out compounds. And the wood-plastic composite business - which fell into the laps of extruder makers, with new companies hungry for machines to turn out miles of decking - appears to be sated with a slew of late-model equipment.
``It's not as hot anymore,'' Kahns said.
Customers are interested, but they remain cautious, said six machinery officials interviewed in October and November for this story.
``We're seeing much more quoting activity. In the user's mind, they're ready to go as soon as they get the green light from their management,'' said Bob Urtel, president of Century Specialties in Traverse City, Mich.
Paul Roberson of NFM Welding Engineers Inc. in Massillon, Ohio, said machinery orders are on hold, even if the customer can justify cost savings and a payback on the investment. ``Things that are pretty much automatic, aren't happening,'' he said.
Roberson, vice president of business development, said 2002 sales mirrored 2001. But he thinks U.S. machinery sales could pick up again next year. NFM Welding Engineers has seen a dramatic increase in potential customers asking for information. Also, U.S. industry has cut costs for two years now, getting lean.
``Now I think there's a competitive equilibrium where the U.S. can now compete more on a global basis,'' Roberson said.
B&P Process Equipment and Systems LLC has sold machines into color concentrates, said Jack Kubica, director of sales and marketing. He said B&P also has been selling its CT line of high-torque extruders for three years now.
``Our business increase is because we're getting a high level of recognition. We're being accepted into the high-speed market,'' Kubica said.
Urtel, of Century Specialties, said customers are fixing up their existing lines. ``It's been slow for us, and most of the work that we've been doing has been remanufacturing of existing equipment. Retrofits have been decent. New extruder sales have been slow,'' he said.
At NPE 2000, Century Specialties introduced an exotic compounder with 12 screws rotating around a fixed core. The unit was developed by a German company, Blach Verfahrenstechnik GmbH. Century, which has the right to sell the machine here, now has one in a laboratory at its headquarters in Traverse City, Mich.
Urtel said the company built a second machine it plans to use as an ``easy-in, easy-out trial machine'' at customer factories.
Rick Price, director of operations at Entek Extruders in Lebanon, Ore., said business improved in 2002. ``Plastics is starting to tail back up. We're starting to see the market come back slowly.''
Price said the wood-composites business is growing beyond decking, into injection molded products and other applications.
Charlie Martin, general manager of American Leistritz Extruder Corp., called 2002 ``a tough year for compounding extruders.''
``What's really pulled us through is direct extrusion and some of the other niche areas that we've targeted,'' including compounding of wood and other natural fibers into pellets.
Leistritz got some competition in direct extrusion in May, when Coperion and Davis-Standard Corp. partnered up to supply direct extrusion, linking Coperion compounding extruders with Davis-Standard downstream equipment.
Farrel Corp., which makes extruders and mixers in Ansonia, Conn., is facing a difficult year. Sales declined 24 percent through the first nine months of 2002, to $29.7 million, from $39.2 million for the same period of 2001. But the company said its order backlog has increased throughout this year, mainly because of orders from North America.
Farrel recently bought the polymer mixing business from Skinner Engine Co. Inc. of Erie, Pa.