People who sell blow molding machines to the U.S. market are pretty optimistic, since the bellwether packaging business remains solid.
On the industrial side, makers of accumulator-head machines are still glum.
The brighter outlook for packaging comes from a trend to self-manufacturing by beverage makers, as they get into blowing their own PET bottles, machinery officials said. And some new technological advances could shift demand into higher gear for equipment to extrusion blow mold polyethylene bottles.
With $3 gasoline, self-manufacturing of PET bottles makes more sense than ever before, said officials of SIG Beverages North America Inc., Sidel Inc. and Krones Inc.
``It literally hurts to transport an empty bottle these days,'' said Peter Andrich, sales vice president at SIG North America in Hillsborough, N.J., part of Hamburg, Germany-based SIG Corpoplast GmbH & Co. KG. ``We continue to see a situation where more and more of the bottling companies that used to be buying bottles from converters ... now mold them in-house.''
Andrich said the self-manufacturing movement was one reason SIG North America enjoyed a strong 2007. ``Two-thirds of our business has really shifted to bottling companies, who never blew a bottle before,'' he said.
The move toward lighter-weight PET bottles also fuels self-manufacturing, said Gina Haines, Sidel marketing vice president in Norcross, Ga. The thinner the bottle, the easier it is to mar the finish.
``Empty-bottle handing, not only does it damage the bottles, but the fewer times to handle the bottle, the better,'' Haines said.
At K 2007 in Dusseldorf, Germany, held in late October, Sidel introduced its no-rib PET ``NoBottle,'' which it said weighs 25-40 percent less than traditional bottles.
Haines said PET still is the favorite bottle of consumers for most beverages. The biggest segments driving sales of blow molding machines include water, sports drinks and energy drinks.
Sidel and Krones both report good sales for turnkey lines, from bottle blow molding to filling to palletizing - again because of more in-house blowing.
``That's been an up-and-coming, growing opportunity for us, particularly with a lot of lightweight packages that are coming through the systems,'' said Dave Raabe, Krones director of blow molding technology in Franklin, Wis. ``When you're dealing with these lightweight containers, it becomes crucial that you can convey it without any type of scuffing or mishandling.''
At K, German parent Krones AG molded its own very thin bottle.
All-electric blow molding machines also proliferated at K 2007, for both PET and HDPE bottles. Bekum Maschinenfabriken GmbH, Nissei ASB, Techne SpA and Uniloy Milacron all introduced electric machines.
Italian supplier Techne, based in Bologna, stood out with its all-electric extrusion blow molder, called the Advance.
On the machine, up to four clamps move under a single, stationary extrusion. Each shuttle moves beside the extrusion head, the clamp turns 90 degrees to accept the parison and then moves out of the way to blow the bottles.
The machine at the K show produced 8,900 bottles an hour for the cosmetics market.
``We're not having to move this great amount of mass, but we're still achieving outputs that far equal or exceed standard long-stroke machines,'' said Kyle Grodzinski, sales vice president of Techne North America Inc. in Aurora, Ontario. Techne still makes long-stroke machines.
Grodzinski said all-electric technology makes a machine like the Advance possible, since it allows for multiple movements at the same time.
York, Pa.-based Graham Engineering Corp. used K to introduced its compact Mini Wheel, aimed at smaller molders that want to boost output dramatically over a shuttle machine but don't need the huge quantities of Graham's full-size wheel.
``The main focus is for coextruded containers,'' said Dave Yenor, vice president of global business development.
Graham also made news in shuttles, announcing a partnership with a firm in Petchaburi, Thailand, Sabmann Blasformtechnik, which will make the new SBG 700D using Graham's extrusion and process control technology.
One small company, W. Amsler Equipment Inc., has been making nothing but all-electric reheat strength blow machines for PET bottles since Werner Amsler founded the Richmond Hill, Ontario, company in 1994. Echoing other PET machinery officials, Amsler's U.S. sales coordinator, Bob Milne, said the market is changing. ``We seem to be getting a lot of interest from people who want to move in-house as opposed to the traditional custom blow molder who is already in it,'' he said.
Amsler is developing larger machines, capable of running five- and six-cavity molds, up from its current limit of four cavities. The company also now can run larger, 1-gallon PET containers.
Milne expect to see more conversion of blow molders of wide-mouth polyethylene, moving into PET.
Extrusion blow molding manufacturers have suffered from lack of radical new technology in recent years, but than is changing, said Robert Jackson, president of Jackson Machinery Inc. of Port Washington, Wis.
``Technology is really going to save us as a group of people that manufacture things,'' he said. The new innovations will help move machines in a U.S. plastics sector with aging equipment. Once one customer buys one, others will feel pressured to follow, Jackson said.
R&B Plastics Machinery LLC in Saline, Mich., had a ``very slow year'' selling new blow molding equipment, said President Robert LaGanke. ``But we had an unbelievably strong year on rebuilds, and had a good year on molds,'' he said.
LaGanke said R&B is busy rebuilding machines in all segments, including shuttles and wheels, and has reworked accumulator-head presses to make multilayer fuel tanks. Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s announcement in September that it plans to sell only concentrated liquid detergent in its U.S. stores also is keeping R&B busy, retooling machines with new tooling and extrusion heads to run the smaller bottles.
The investments are a good sign, LaGanke said. ``It feels to me like there's a rebound, like we're at a real rebound state,'' he said.
Producers of accumulator-head machines wish they could say the same. ``It's a market that has been declining over the past years,'' said Wolfgang Meyer, president of Kautex Machines Inc. in North Branch, N.J. He has seen some activity in industrial packaging, such as plastic drums and intermediate bulk containers.
Kautex is a leader in six-layer lines for small fuel tanks, to meet tough standards of the Environmental Protection Agency for a range of products such as all-terrain vehicles and lawn equipment. But Meyer said new investments in the sophisticated machines were slowed this year because regulations have been delayed for some end products.
Resin companies also are working on new materials that could blow mold barrier-layer tanks on one, two or three layers, instead of six. But Meyer said the resins could be very expensive.
Yenor, at Graham Engineering, said some machines are sold each year, ``but it certainly is not nearly as large as it used to be five or 10 years ago.''
``There won't be six accumulator-head machines sold this year,'' said Frank Kennedy, sales director for accumulator-head machines at Davis-Standard LLC of Pawcatuck, Conn. Markets that fueled growth in the 1990s, mainly automotive, toys and plastic storage sheds, are down. Higher resin prices also hurt these resin-intensive products.
Kennedy pays attention to auctions and the used-machine market, as an indicator of investment. ``The one positive thing that I'm starting to hear, is that some of the custom molders I've talked to are pretty busy,'' he said.