(Nov. 22, 2004) — For those of you who sell plastics machinery to the U.S. market, there's reason for optimism — optimism, remember that word?
Putting together this week's package, Machinery Outlook 2005, Plastics News senior reporter Bill Bregar talked with more than 45 executives at manufacturers of injection molding machines, extruders and blow molding machines. Nearly all of them agreed: Business is finally turning around.
At the same time, machinery people are realistic. You don't hear much of the old sales guy braggadocio where “everything's great” and all that. A bone-crunching downturn that lingers for more than three years does tend to humble you.
So now that brighter times are ahead, how good will it get? People from the injection molding machine business, the largest equipment sector, think the United States could grow about 10 percent this year when measured in number of units. If so, U.S. shipments would improve from the 2003 number of 3,290 units up past 3,600 for 2004. The dollar-volume picture should be even better, since much of the action continues to be in large-tonnage presses.
Even more important is the optimism, modest though it may be, that machinery executives share for the U.S. market going forward. It's impossible to predict exactly what will happen in coming years, but you get the sense, talking to the equipment folks, that U.S. plastics processors finally are committed to modernizing, and that includes investing in new equipment and automation. They want to wring every last drop out of their ever-more-costly resin, squeeze down labor costs, become as efficient as possible.
Certainly, with all the work lost overseas, that base of U.S. processors is smaller now. The machinery business has changed. Friedrich Kanz, head of Arburg Inc. in Newington, Conn., stated it clearly: “The days of customers just calling the sales rep and saying, 'Hey, I need another 100- or 500-tonner' are over, really.”
Expectations have changed to face the challenging face of manufacturing today. Executives at plastics factories now understand that China is a reality. Machinery companies are responding with new technology, clearly evident at shows like the gigantic K 2004 show Oct. 20-27 in Dusseldorf, Germany.
One word about K. Show organizers say that, officially, about the same number of people from the United States and Canada came to K 2004 as attended K 2001, which was just six weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. That's disappointing, but it also seems less than accurate. First, since K attendees don't have to register to get into the show, it's difficult to get a precise handle on just how many trade visitors came from specific countries.
But talk to any U.S.-based machinery sales executive who was at K 2001 and K 2004. At K 2001 they spent much of the day somberly waiting to see if any Americans would stop by. And waiting. And waiting. K 2004 was a different story. American salespeople scrambled around meeting customers and working on deals.
At times during K 2004, the upstairs refreshment areas of the major injection press suppliers looked like Vegas — a lot of action, paperwork on the table, contracts being signed. K of course attracts buyers from around the world, but it's clear that many of the North American customers came ready to invest in the future.
Improvements in technology, led by the machinery makers, will help forge that future.