Compounding extruders continued their climb back this year, and for once, it's not only sales to wood-flour and color masterbatch extruders. Machinery executives say the general compounding market is buying again.
``This year it does seem that the general compounders are coming back,'' said Kirk Hanawalt, sales vice president at Entek Extruders of Lebanon, Ore. ``Last year the market was still pretty weak, except in some areas. Wood-plastics composites was pretty strong, but the general compounding was not,'' he said.
Hanawalt said Entek also is seeing action from small custom compounders and start-up companies that fill niches ignored by the big players.
``I see those people coming back again,'' he said.
The U.S. compounding machinery business suffered through three or four rough years before it finally began to turn last year, equipment officials said. Although some orders are breaking loose, several machinery executives said general compounders are investing cautiously.
``I think the orders are still smaller than they have been in the past. It's not been multimachine orders, but instead it's just the single units. People are still hesitant about buying because of the economy in North America,'' said Dan Mielcarek, business manager for chemical technology and food extrusion at Coperion Corp. in Ramsey, N.J.
``The last couple of years have kind of been in a funk,'' said William Flaherty, vice president of sales at Farrel Corp. in Ansonia, Conn. But this year, he said, ``Our business has picked up considerably on the plastics side.''
Signs point to continued improvement in 2005, machinery suppliers said. ``They are buying, and we expect more buying to take place. Because what our customers are telling us is that they are running at 80-85 percent capacity. So they're getting to that point where they're going to be forced to expand shortly,'' Mielcarek said.
Charlie Martin of American Leistritz Extruder Corp. agreed. He said some general compounders have delayed buying new equipment, instead rebuilding their aging fleet of extruders.
``It seems like the specialty and high-tech markets have begun to rebound, and commodity compounders are in the queue. They haven't released the funds yet, but they are starting to feel a sense of desperation.''
For American Leistritz in Somerville, N.J., machine orders were slow for the second half of 2003 through the first half of 2004. ``It has picked up in 2004 and we were fortunate to get some good orders in direct extrusion,'' Martin said.
Direct extrusion, also called in-line extrusion, allows a processor to do its own compounding, as the material moves directly to the processing machinery.
If the application is right, Martin said the processor can save money by cutting out the toll compounding step and adding fillers in-house - an attractive idea with the still-tight economy and soaring resin prices.
Skyrocketing resin prices could hurt sales of compounding extruders if resin remains high over the long term, and compounders are unable to pass along the higher costs, machinery suppliers said. But so far, resin prices have not had much impact on equipment, they said.
Resin economics have spurred interest in Farrel machines, because of their ability to run materials with high levels of mineral filler, Flaherty said.
``We expect to have a very good year in 2005,'' he said.
Beyond resin, in the tight-knit world of compounding extruders, China was the other big story of 2004. U.S. compounders, get ready to be lured by low-priced machines from China.
Coperion Group of Stuttgart, Germany, purchased a majority stake in Nanjing Keya Industries in China, which claims to hold more than 50 percent of the Chinese market for standard and midsize extruders. The renamed Coperion Keya will sell the Chinese-made STS extruder internationally, including in the United States.
Coperion announced the STS at Chinaplas 2004 in Shanghai.
Not to be outdone, Century Inc. of Traverse City, Mich., used K 2004 in Dusseldorf, Germany, to announce a deal with what it called China's second-largest maker of twin-screw compounding extruders: Nanjing Ruiya Polymer Processing Equipment Co. Ltd. Century will handle sales and service of Ruiya's TSO extruders in North America and other regions.
Mielcarek said the Coperion Keya STS, with a German-built gearbox and controls from Italy, is aimed at new customers.
``We don't expect it to compete with our main business, the ZSK. It's going to add business, we think,'' he said. ``Some of the smaller people, we're offering a machine at the same price as a single-screw, so they can get into the twin-screw market.''
Meanwhile, another German company, Bertstorff GmbH, is beefing up the level of U.S. content on its extruders. Korbinian Kiesl, vice president of Berstorff Corp. in Florence, Ky., said 2004 U.S. compounding extruder sales are running the same as 2003 - which was a strong year with more than a 30-plus percent sales gain from the year before.
This year, Kiesl said, Berstorff's growth market was in lines to make sheet by direct compounding. The complete lines, including extruders and downstream equipment, are used to turn out sheet for thermoformed automotive parts, such as dashboards, door panel components and headrests. Another big market: membranes for flat roofs.
``We had additional strong business in sheet,'' Kiesl said.