The dinosaur of the plastics molding industry may just be receiving a proverbial shot in the arm for a rebirth in North America, according to a recent report.
According to Peter Mooney of Plastics Custom Research Services in Advance, N.C., there has been a veritable renaissance in the compression molding business since 2002, driven by a range of domestic and global economic factors. The entire market will grow from 1.5 million pounds in 2004 to 1.8 million pounds in 2009 in terms of total volume of output, Mooney said.
Those factors include macro-economic drivers like improving manufacturing in North America. Also, the fact that thermoset resin pricing has been less affected than thermoplastic resins because of their material make up. Plus, compression molding has been rediscovered as a highly cost-effective, low-pressure production process with low-cost molds and low-maintenance machinery, Mooney said.
The traditional markets have been automotive, electrical components, and appliances, electronic equipment and components and caps and closures, all of which will continue to form the foundation of the growth dynamic for the business in North America, Mooney said.
``These markets should collectively contribute average annual growth of 3 percent in volume terms,'' he said.
But watch for growth in new end markets including residential exterior doors and materials handling, including end users of pallets that want to replace wood. Makers of aircraft and watersports products also will rely on compression molding.
In these new markets, the growth potential is far greater at 5 percent to 7 percent. The compression molding market will be affected by other factors, including the trend from open molding to closed molding, due in large part to environmental regulations.
Mooney said U.S. thermoset composite processors have to deal with environmental regulations issued by numerous federal and state bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, for example.
More recently, bodies like the American Composite Manufacturers Association of Arlington, Va., have been active in getting companies in compliance. Under 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, major sources of potentially hazardous air emissions are required to obtain Title V operating standards and to install maximum achievable control technology standards. In August 2001, EPA released proposals for Clean Air Act regulations specifically governing composite part production.
``The EPA is sending out these people to check plants,'' Mooney said. ``It's often $25,000 per day for a fine. This is serious business.''
For end-market dominance, will automotive maintain its position as the largest market?
``If they can solve the paint-popping issue,'' Mooney said matter-of-factly in an Aug. 1 telephone interview.
Automotive accounts for 60 percent of bulk molding compound and sheet molding compound consumption and 27 percent of all compression molding output.
``There's a lot of competition for these exterior parts,'' Mooney said. ``They have to compete with thermoformers coming along. They all have a chance. But the critical thing is surface finish and fit and finish. My sense is that compression molders that can solve that can have a very good scope, especially for horizontal parts.''
Thermoset experts report mixed opinions on the type of growth they're seeing.
At Bulk Molding Compounds Inc. in West Chicago, Ill., roughly 35 percent of its products go into compression molding applications, said Len Nunnery, vice president of global sales and marketing. The remainder goes into injection molding applications.
``As much as 10-15 years ago, it may have been closer to 50-50,'' Nunnery said. ``The propagation of valve covers and other applications, including automotive under-the-hood, has driven BMCI toward injection molding.''
Nunnery believes markets in Mexico and Asia are where the United States was 10-15 years ago in compression molding, with the labor advantage making compression molding accessible in those regions. Compression molding still will be popular in North America for oversized automotive parts, like body panels, truck beds and hoods.
``That business is only going to grow,'' he said. ``Oversized automotive parts are a very significant and growing industry. That's a different niche market that is extraordinarily promising and growing every year.''
Still, the molding business in North America is coming to grips with the fact that they can't have such labor-intensive operations.
``Although there are ways to automate compression molding, they're not popular at this time,'' he said. ``In some cases, it may be less expensive just to move into injection molding.''
At compression mold maker Century Tool & Gage Co. in Fenton, Mich., officials said they are seeing a bit of growth right now.
The company's end markets include automotive, heavy truck, aerospace and personal watercraft.
``The next few years look pretty decent,'' said President Mike Cummings. ``The market that we serve will stay steady, so no need for expansion, but we will be upgrading equipment instead.''
Currently, his company is quoting some automotive projects that he expects to come to fruition as well. He also reported that heavy-truck business will pick up again for 2009 models.
``We have booked business right now that will take us into next year,'' he said.
But perhaps a surprising and overlooked element of compression molding is the largest market of them all. The vast caps and closures market is split roughly 55-45 between injection molded and compression molded units, respectively.
``They really are a sui generis of their own,'' Mooney said. ``It's more of a curiosity.''
It's a position that officials at Colt's Plastics Co. Inc. in Dayville, Conn., will occupy gladly.
Michael Warford, vice president of sales and marketing, said the firm has had substantial growth in thermoset caps and closures in recent years and that market continues to be a mainstay of the firm's operations. The company uses rotary compression molding presses designed in-house.
``Colt's has positioned itself for further growth through continued employee development, the refurbishment and redeployment of updated molding equipment and by reallocating precious floor space that has become available through automation and operational efficiencies,'' Warford wrote in a July 31 e-mail response to questions.
Compression molding offers no gate or sink marks with urea and phenolic molding compounds that have high specific gravities that mean luxurious feel in the hands of high-end cosmetics customers.
``With recent innovations in coatings technology, urea and phenolic caps and closures are a viable candidate for screen printing and spray color coatings,'' he said.
Other officials across the industry interviewed for this story had mixed reactions to the future of compression molding.
``It's dieing in some markets and growing in others,'' said Ken Haywood, sales manager with Chant Engineering Co. Inc. of New Britain, Pa. Chant designs and builds machinery for industrial and government applications.
The electrical market, for instance, has gone down due to the rise of injection molding.
``But very large parts that can't be injection molded are compression molded,'' he said.
Chant itself has some change coming up this fall as it breaks ground for construction of two larger facilities to accommodate its business. It will sell the facility that it's in now to move across the street, where it owns 15 acres.
``We sold more compression molding machines than injection molding machines in the first part of this year,'' Haywood said. ``That's not standard. But for us, it looks like it's still a viable business.''
In John Kelch's world as president and chief executive officer of custom molder Ashton Plastic Products Inc. in Xenia, Ohio, the situation has changed drastically since 1994 when Ashton began. At that time, 80 percent of everything Ashton was running was compression molded and 20 percent was injection molded. Now, that ratio has been reversed.
``The compression molding business that we have has tapered off a bit,'' Kelch said. ``Most people are more interested in injection molding thermoset.''
Thermoset injection molding offers faster cycle times - think 60 seconds vs. 180 seconds, for example.
With injection, Kelch said, ``The biggest thing is that you can run automatic. In this day and age, you have to find everything you can do to be as efficient as possible. That's the one sad thing: Gas and oil prices have affected thermoset. We see our pricing out here being commodity-driven.''
Still, business overall is looking up for Ashton.
``In the last nine months, we have picked up,'' Kelch said. We are busy. We've started hiring again, which we haven't done in two years. And in the last year, we've started quoting new jobs.''