With demand growth for PET bottles reaching maturity in some global markets, suppliers of stretch-blow molding equipment are in a race to bring down costs for their machines, as well as those of the finished bottle.
At K 2004 in Dusseldorf, representatives emphasized how the latest machines feature increased speeds and production flexibility, at little if any extra cost. If they are not already producing their machines in low-labor countries like China and India, several of these companies are either thinking very hard about it, and/or dropping uncompetitive lines.
Currently they are concentrating on more technically sophisticated equipment that, for the moment at least, can only be made in the United States, Europe or Japan. And they are boosting service packages and offering design services that they say will help make bottles better and cheaper.
According to one source, there are at least 37 companies around the world now making reheat blow molding machines for PET. A large number of them are in low-wage countries.
German supplier Krones AG has upgraded its Contiform S24 rotary reheat machine so that it can now produce 1,800 bottles per cavity per hour - that's a total of 43,200 bottles per hour - when producing 0.6-liter bottles. It guarantees 1,700 per hour if the user needs to make them to particularly tough specifications regarding stress cracking. Previous speed was 1,600 per hour.
The S24 is not the largest machine the company makes. Its SK 40 small-cavity machine can make up to 60,000 bottles per hour.
Krones is adding features to its machines to help bring down running costs. The Air Wizard on the Contiform S, for example, tailors the amount of final blow molding pressure according to the shape and quality of the bottle. And it has an air recycling system that can cut air consumption by as much as 25 percent. Krones said that a cut in compressed-air consumption of 20 percent produces a cut in total operating costs of 10 percent.
Wolfgang Reichert, product specialist in Krones' plastics division in Neutraubling, Germany, sees further market growth coming in packaging for beer - especially in Eastern Europe (including Russia) and Asia - and in dairy products. The company recently sold its first line for sterilized milk to an Italian company. The Centrale del Latte di Brescia, packs milk with a shelf life of 90 days in PET bottles that have metal-coated full-sleeve labels to prevent light and oxygen ingress.
Focus on integration
Groupe Sidel, meanwhile, is putting more emphasis on integrated blowing, filling and capping lines. Its Combi line was only for water bottles when it was launched seven years ago, but Sidel has since expanded the offering to cover all types of liquids that are currently packed in PET. The machine it had running on its stand at K 2004, plus three more units, will be delivered to Spanish bottler Leche Pascual. They will be used for water, but Sylvie Rak, sales communications manager at Sidel in Octeville-sur-Mer, France, said Leche Pascual also is considering Combi machines for milk.
Italian supplier Sipa SpA, which introduced its first rotary reheat machine in 2000, is on a roll. Jon Elward, vice president, sales and marketing for Sipa Plastic Packaging Systems North America in Atlanta, said business has grown dramatically over the last three years. It now has some 15 rotary machines in the region.
Elward said being a latecomer to the market has not proved to be a disadvantage. If anything, it has allowed it to avoid mistakes earlier entrants have made. The way molds open on its reheat wheel for example - more like a crocodile than a book - enables it to add more cavities while keeping the wheel small. Total machine footprint can be one- third that of other machines.
Sipa's latest machine is the first to take three cavities per mold. It can also take one- and two-cavity molds, while competing machines, which take two-cavity molds, are stuck with two cavities because of the blow pin arrangement.
The SFR 9/27 has nine stations, and can make 40,500 bottles per hour, but the wheel on the machine is the same size as a six-cavity wheel on other machines, Elward said. Peripheral speed is less than a third, which has important implications for wear and maintenance.
The PET bottle world has for a long time been divided between those that work with high-output reheat machines, and those that use single-stage injection stretch blow molding machines for smaller outputs and niche applications. Aoki Technical Laboratory Inc., which makes only the latter, is trying to move the dividing line.
On its stand at K 2004 was a big sign that said it actually costs more to make PET preforms than it does to make finished bottles with its three-station injection stretch blow machines. That may seem hard to believe, but Aoki said it is counting in costs of handling, storing, transporting and unscrambling the preforms between where they are molded and where they are finally blown.
These are costs it reckons a lot of people have not always fully taken into account. Eiji Nishizawa, from Aoki's sales and marketing department in Nagano, Japan, said that when the market was growing fast, bottlers were not worried about peripheral costs.
``But,'' he said, ``circumstances have changed. When a market is mature, costs are more important.''
Italian firm Automa SpA has added a second model, the NSB50S, to its line of injection stretch machines. The unit is aimed at pharmaceutical applications. It complements the larger NSB140S, geared toward wide-mouthed jars.
``Our strategy is to put a high level of technology in our machines,'' said Luca Canossi, president of the Bologna, Italy-based company. ``We can't compete on price with machines made in India or China.''
The machines are fast-cycling, and use electric drives to cut running costs and improve precision.
But another Italian supplier, Magic MP SpA, said that while it still will sell injection stretch machines to customers willing to pay the price - well over twice as much as a machine made in Asia - its emphasis in the future will be on an electric reheat machine, the FV2500. The machine can make flat bottles from standard preforms. The production rate is about 5,000 bottles per hour with four-cavity molds.
Mag-Plastic Machinery Inc.currently is moving into new 180,000-square-foot production facilities across the road from its location in Vouvry, Switzerland, and is revamping its linear reheat machines that start with the two-cavity SSB-02, which makes around 800 bottles per hour. By the end of next year, the machines will have a range of output rates as high as 12,000 bottles per hour, the company said.
Mag is opening up in India too. It now has a 90,000-square-foot factory in Pune, from which it has just delivered its first machine. Sales manager Driss Nhari said the move was prompted by Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo wanting to buy machines locally for operations in India.
The machines made in India - two- and three-cavity types - will, for now, be identical to those manufactured in Switzerland, and most components are being imported. But the aim is to do as much local sourcing as possible, he said.
``Medium-term penetration of the market will depend on that,'' Nhari said. There are no plans yet to export from India.
Nissei ASB already has production in both China and India. It makes a six-cavity, entry-level, single-stage machine in India, ``under Japanese quality conditions,'' according to Eberhard Neumann, director of Nissei ASB GmbH, a Dusseldorf-based unit of the Japanese company. Also made in India is the PF8-4B, which recently had a hydraulics and hot-runner upgrade to cut cycle times for 500-milliliter soap dispensers from 13 seconds to 9 seconds.
Neumann said the operation in India, which employs 500 working three shifts, 350 days per year, is sold-out. Capacity will be increased next year, but he declined to provide details.