Blow molding was the lone bright spot for U.S. plastics machinery in 2003, and some new trends are combining to keep the sector moving ahead this year and beyond.
Gas tanks for cars get all the headlines, but the big story is the environmentally driven demand for small multilayer fuel tanks for everything from your lawnmower to your weed whacker. Major regulations for hydrocarbon emissions coming from the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board mean the basic, old, one-layer plastic tank should be on the way out, machinery officials said.
That will help Kautex Machines Inc., the company in North Branch, N.J., that already is a leading player in the automotive tank market. Kautex is part of Kautex Maschinenbau GmbH in Bonn, Germany, which was acquired in May from beverage packaging equipment giant SIG Holding Ltd.
The ownership change was the biggest business news of 2004 involving a blow molding machinery maker - and means that Kautex now can focus on its accumulator-head extrusion equipment and industrial machines to make ducts for cars and other complex tubular shapes.
But other equipment makers may jump into the multilayer machinery business, lured by all those small fuel tanks. Robert Jackson is studying it. ``We're looking at a market of 30-40 machines,'' said the president of Jackson Machinery Inc. in Port Washington, Wis.
Jackson thinks six-layer small fuel tanks could help revive the industrial blow molding machinery market. Another reason he is fairly optimistic: new safety standards that could cause some people to buy new, rather than spend big bucks on aging machines. Jackson's company also sells used machines, and he said there are very good ones out there.
``The logic is my used business is so strong that we're just running out of reliable used machines,'' he said.
Those factors have Jackson in an upbeat mood - despite the fact that he said large accumulator-head machines continue to suffer. ``We have done better this year than the last three, and I look forward to next year being better,'' he said.
Frank Kennedy, sales director for Davis-Standard Corp.'s accumulator-head equipment, said demand has changed - for the bigger. ``The market's going to be big machines, with 50- to 75-pound shots,'' he said. Kennedy pointed to a giant new outdoor shed, and other industrial applications coming out. ``The heads are getting bigger, and the machines are getting bigger, because of these applications.''
The move to bigger machines means that dollar volume is increasing. But Kennedy said that overall unit sales are still in ``incremental'' growth. ``I'm still seeing a cautious approach in the industry before people are making purchases.'' Davis-Standard is based in Pawcatuck, Conn.
For extrusion blow molding machinery makers that target packaging, 2004 has been a mixed bag.
Interviewed in mid-November, James Sheely of R&B Plastics Machinery LLC said: ``2004's been relatively slow. This last quarter, quote activities picked up, but it's just slow for people to be placing orders. It seems that people are just waiting for their '05 budgets.''
Sheely, vice president of business development, is optimistic about the coming new year. The company in Saline, Mich., is close to some good orders. And R&B is ready to launch its line of continuous extrusion shuttle blow molders, a lower-volume alternative to its traditional base of wheel machines.
Jeffrey Newman, vice president of sales and marketing for Wilmington Machinery Inc., reports ``an OK year.''
``We seem to have a flurry of quoting activity and visitors over the next couple of months, so we're guardedly optimistic about next year.''
Bekum America Corp. in Williamston, Mich., is celebrating what President Martin Stark calls another strong year. Stark said Bekum America is exceeding its budget projection of 15 percent growth for 2004. ``And right now we are in the process of booking machines for 2005. So the forecast for 2005, I think we are very, very confident that we will be busy,'' he said.
When a customer comes out with a brand-new package, Bekum often supplies a turnkey system. ``The packaging industry didn't have the deep cut and dip that the general injection people had,'' Stark said.
Uniloy Milacron this year moved into a renovated, 75,000-square-foot technical service center in Tecumseh, Mich. ``It allowed us to start with a clean sheet of paper and make our work flow more efficient,'' said sales director Richard Smith.
Smith said Uniloy Milacron's strength is its diversity of machinery technologies. In packaging, business has been fairly flat this year. ``It's been at the same levels as 2003. We didn't see much growth this year at all,'' he said.
Uniloy Milacron also builds accumulator-head machines, where the business picked up for the automotive sector in the latter part of 2003. ``There seems to be an increase in activity in industrial blow molding right now,'' Smith said.
PET: one step or two?
Turning to PET, U.S. machinery growth is coming from a move to 12-ounce soda bottles with barrier properties, and continued inroads into small custom packaging for cosmetics and other higher-end products.
Soft drink companies are getting ready to launch the 12-ounce bottles. Barrier protection - through a barrier layer or coating applied after the bottle is produced - will give the small PET bottles long-enough shelf life to compete directly with aluminum cans in the grocery store wars.
Nissei ASB Co., the Atlanta-based supplier of one-step PET machines, is ``heavily involved in personal care,'' including mouthwash and liquid hand soap, said Rob Hyams, vice president of sales, marketing and engineering. Another growth area: wide-mouth PET storage jars
At K 2004 last month in Dusseldorf, Germany, Japanese parent firm Nissei ASB Machine Co., showed machinery to blow mold easy-grip PET bottles, with a molded-in deep handle.
Nissei ASB's fiscal year ended Sept. 30. The last half of the year was slow, but Hyams points to more ``serious'' quotes since then.
``Everything seems to be on a much more positive note. So I would anticipate that this year would be a better year than last year,'' he said.
Oval-shaped bottles and other special shapes comprise an important market for Automa SpA.
``We're not making Pepsi bottles,'' said Beverly Agnew of Moldpro Inc., Automa's North American agent in Burlington, Ontario.
She said Automa's markets have held up, including pharmaceuticals, vitamins and herbs.
One-step blow molding machines injection mold the PET preform, then blow the bottle all on a single machine. The process is well-suited for flexible, smaller runs like cosmetic packaging, said Sumio Fujisawa, president of Aoki Technical Laboratory Inc. in Elk Grove Village, Ill.
Fujisawa's outlook for 2005? ``Once again, it's project-based,'' he said. ``One-step is good for the markets like polypropylene, medical, cosmetic. It's not for the food products or beverage, where the two-step process is strong.''