How did blow molding machinery sales go in 2006? Feast or famine, depending on the sector, with accumulator-head machines still down in the dumps, PET strong and equipment for polyethylene bottles pretty stable, with some tantalizing material-substitution projects on the horizon.
The good news, machinery officials said, was the sector's quick rebound from resin price spikes in 2005 that even caused PE shortages. A year ago, some news stories wondered about the availability of a consumer staple: the PE milk jug.
``While price is still obviously a concern, the bigger issue was availability. And I think the availability issues are behind us. We don't hear our customers talking about availability anymore,'' said Dave Skala, vice president and general manager of Uniloy Milacron in Tecumseh, Mich.
Another piece of good news: The industry-changing dairy consolidation that slowed machinery sales seems to be winding down. ``This is starting to level out, from our standpoint,'' said Skala, who added that there are a lot of 20-year-old machines in dairy that will need replacing.
Meanwhile, Uniloy Milacron is poised to become more of a global force in dairy blow molding. At last year's NPE, the firm showed its first multilayer reciprocating blow molding machine. The press blows sterile air to make containers for milk or soy-based beverages with a 6-month shelf life without refrigeration. The three-layer bottles are targeted at developing countries, but Skala said Uniloy has sold some to U.S. customers that like the clean operation just to squeeze a few more days of shelf life out of milk in traditional jugs.
Robert LaGanke, president of R&B Plastics Machinery LLC in Saline, Mich., agreed that the general U.S. dairy market is poised for machinery replacement. He said reciprocating-screw machines older than the mid-1990s probably aren't worth rebuilding.
``There's a huge amount of old machines in the dairy industry,'' he said. LaGanke said shuttle machine sales ``have been a bit slow.'' On wheel machines, R&B is in the hunt for orders from school lunch milk programs, where PE bottles are replacing the long-used cardboard cartons.
The dairy industry says kids drink more milk when it comes in plastic. This year, 4,000 schools across the U.S. switched to plastic. More will make the move in 2007.
``Just imagine, if they're all going to convert, what that means for plastics. That's huge,'' said Martin Stark, president and chief executive officer of Bekum America Corp. in Williamston, Mich.
Stark also sees some conversion in specialty applications. He said new types of packaging drive blow molding machinery sales. ``For 2007, I definitely see a lot of good things right now,'' he said.
U.S. extrusion blow molding machine makers, like other equipment sectors, are facing competition from Chinese-made machines from Kautex Machines Inc. and Akei Plastic-Machine Mfy. Ltd. of Hong Kong. Under a Nov. 1 agreement, PLP and Associates of Morristown, Tenn., will provide service in North America for Akei machines, said Bob Milne of CanQuip Machine Sales LLC in Perrysburg, Ohio.
``We have customers who would like to purchase an Akei machine, but without service here, it's a major stumbling block,'' he said.
Kyle Grodzinski, sales vice president at Techne North America Inc., reports ``steady growth'' for its Italian-made machines, thanks to Techne's long-stroke blow molder, which uses two extrusion heads, instead of the traditional method of a mold shuttling back and forth.
Techne North America is the Aurora, Ontario-based unit of Italian manufacturer Techne SpA. In January, the firm will open a 1,500-square-foot site in Fort Worth, Texas, to handle spare parts and technical support.
For 2007, ``There's a steady increase right now for inquiries for new machinery,'' Grodzinski said.
Not so for accumulator-head machines, as that segment continues to drag along. Frank Kennedy, Davis-Standard LLC's sales director for accumulator-head machines, said the industry sells 20-25 machines a year.
One reason is consolidation in the industrial drum sector. Also, Kennedy said that auctions have put many accumulator-head machines on the market. One major series of auctions is coming at Creative Engineered Polymer Products LLC, formerly Carlisle Engineered Products.
``You have companies now who would never dream about buying used equipment, but now the first thing they do is look at used, because there's just so much good used machinery out there,'' he said.
Kennedy said Davis-Standard, of Pawcatuck, Conn., did sell some units to automotive molders. Uniloy Milacron also reports some automotive success, including to blow mold headrests.
But, Skala said, Uniloy has focused more on turnkey packages, to break into brand-new markets.
Dave Yenor of Graham Engineering Corp. said the accumulator-head market ``is mature, so put it politically correct.'' At NPE York, Pa.-based Graham introduced its five-head industrial shot pot machine, to more than double production with the same floor space. It has also done well with machines for PE packaging, especially in niches that require coextrusion or special features.
``Everybody in blow molding today is just kind of holding their own. We do have some optimism with some of the projects we've been working on for awhile, as we move into next year,'' Yenor said.
Even the bright spot of giant six-layer accumulator-head machines to mold fuel tanks for snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles and lawn equipment slowed in 2006, two machinery officials said.
The fuel tank industry has to sort out how many of the pricey machines it needs, as well as uncertainty about how fast Environmental Protection Agency rules will cover such products.
Wolfgang Meyer, president of Kautex Machines Inc., said that investment should continue after the current pause in six-layer lines. ``There has been, with the last 12 months, very little activity with new sales,'' he said.
Meyer echoed other comments about the slowdown in accumulator-head single-layer machines. He said the packaging-machinery side is doing better for Kautex of North Branch, N.J.
One packaging area continues to grow: PET bottles. ``It's been a real strong year for Sidel in North America,'' said Gina Haines, marketing vice president for Sidel in Norcross, Ga.
She said Sidel had several dozen orders for new blow molding machinery.
Soft drinks and water continue to consume a majority of PET packaging. The fastest-growing segments are sports drinks, water, juice and ready-to-drink teas.
Smaller firm W. Amsler Inc. of Richmond Hill, Ontario, targets custom markets for its all-electric blow molding machines. This year the firm built its first four-cavity machine, to go with its one- and two-cavity units. Amsler is working on injection stretch blow molding of PP.