Across North America, thermoformers are starting to look at opportunities in different markets and technologies.
In Michigan, the future is in film.
Automotive thermoformer Durakon Industries Inc. is putting its stake into paint film. The company recently expanded plants in its headquarters town of Clinton, Tenn., and in Lapeer, Mich.
Three automakers are using the film for running boards, rocker panels and partial bumper fascias, said John Montagna, vice president of advanced engineered products. No longer painting some parts means they cost less - as much as half the cost.
And the company now is launching conductive film on its well-known bedliner line to help dissipate static electricity. That could stop the horrifying sight of explosions caused by flammable gasoline on a bedliner surface, Montagna said.
Other thermoformers are looking at different innovations. A few are starting to use resin from polylactic acid sold by Cargill Inc.'s Natureworks LLC. Others are getting into composite materials, from aircraft domes to military helmets. New barrier containers and tray designs have been introduced.
On the surface, thermoforming seems to be in a good place. But while some of the new work has captured attention, there are undercurrents of anxiety.
Consultant Peter Mooney is preparing a report surveying the thermoforming industry. Mooney, president of Plastics Custom Research Services of Advance, N.C., said industrial thermoformers took a major hit in business in 2004. Even thin-gauge thermoformers, while performing better, have been dinged by foreign competition and low prices.
``The quick response is to say that they must be doing fairly well,'' Mooney said. ``But I don't think the growth rate from thermoforming is as robust as it has been in the past.''
Those growth rates have slipped some since the start of this decade, as they have across the plastics spectrum. In 2005, Mooney expected both light- and heavy-gauge thermoformers to show similar 4.5 percent growth rates. That's not terrible, but nothing to throw a party about, either. In thermoforming, one problem has been the lack of volume, coupled with slimmer profit.
Technology and innovation are helping. There are some signs of excitement, like what Durakon is doing to transform thermoforming in automotive. Still, a far greater number of thermoformers are small entrepreneurs who make their living offering custom work to anyone who comes calling.
Therein lies the rub. Many companies don't have the disposable income to reinvest in technology.
Listening to the excitement from Durakon and others is to realize that innovation quickly can become a transforming force.
After all, Durakon was ready to close its manufacturing complex in Lapeer in 2002, only to reverse course and start on a new, revitalizing path. Three years is a long time ago for the bedliner maker.
``The company decided it wanted to be a significant player in paint film,'' he said. ``So we invested the millions of dollars that we had to do to make this fully operational.''
Like other sectors of the plastics industry, thermoformers are finding that, in a maturing market, they need to offer more than plain vanilla service to survive.