Recreational vehicles should continue to be a growing market for industrial thermoforming this year, industry forecasts suggest.
Following a robust year, RV manufacturers could see a 5 percent increase in wholesale shipments in 2003, predicts Richard Curtin, director of the Surveys of Consumers at the University of Michigan. Bruce Hertzke, chairman, chief executive officer and president of Winnebago Industries Inc. of Forest City, Iowa, thinks RV shipments in the first half of the year could be as much as 8-10 percent higher than a year earlier.
RV shipments in 2002 rebounded after two years of decline. Last year, U.S. RV shipments increased about 21 percent to 307,400 units, worth $10 billion, estimated the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association of Reston, Va. Although general economic conditions aren't buoyant, RV sales are being driven by low interest rates, an aging and retiring population and more vacationers opting for domestic road trips rather than air travel, RVIA officials said.
Thermoformers supplying the RV sector can expect activity to be more brisk this year than during the dog days of 2000 and 2001, when RV shipments slipped 7 percent and 14 percent, respectively. Those years were tough because the U.S. economy began to enter a recession.
``Recreational vehicles are considered to be a leading economic indicator,'' said RVIA spokesman Ken Sommer. ``The industry is one of the first to feel economic downturn and also is one of the first to recover.''
Sommer said RV dealers drew down inventories during the slow period. By the end of 2001, retailers' inventory was depleted, spurring a big jump in orders from RV makers in 2002, he said in an interview from Reston.
Duo-Form Plastics has expanded to keep up with a surge in orders from RV producers, said President Gene Gamber. His firm focuses on RV components ranging from outside parts such as caps and fender skirts, to interior bathware systems.
Gamber concurs with estimates that RV production could grow about 5 percent this year and that it will outperform the overall economy and some other thermoforming markets. Manufactured housing, heavy-duty trucks and farm equipment all seem to be weak markets now for thermoformed goods, he said from Duo-Form's Edwardsburg, Mich., head office and plant.
Prodesign LLC doesn't sell a lot into the RV market, but its stake will grow early this year because of a contract for a new part, said President Kevin Gipson. The Elkhart, Ind., company will form a one-piece, full dashboard for an undisclosed Class A motor home. He expects one-piece dashes to take over from standard two-piece types. Although it is a subsidiary of RV major Coachmen Industries Inc. of Elkhart, Prodesign counts several other markets as larger than its RV work.
Material replacement will fuel much of thermoforming's growth in the RV market, said consultant Jim Throne. He thinks the RV market is mature, with recent sales increases representing recovery rather than sustainable growth. Total RV shipments could grow modestly, but there is a lot of growth potential for thermoformed parts to replace conventional metal or fiberglass parts.
A new generation of polypropylene sheet could help growth in the RV sector and other markets, Throne said from Dunedin, Fla., where his business, Sherwood Technologies Inc., is based. New, heavy-gauge PP sheet has gloss, color stability, heat resistance and other improved properties for thermoforming.
``Industrial thermoforming growth will benefit from new materials,'' he said.