NPE2009 was a moral victory. The Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. pulled off a major trade show during the worst economic times in nearly everyone's memory.
Faced with some large companies pulling out of the show, SPI President Bill Carteaux enacted an economic stimulus plan that cut costs for exhibitors. Now SPI is feeling the pain from the $3.2 million cost of the stimulus, as it restructures and lays off staff.
I covered injection molding machines at NPE, so I spent entire days in McCormick Place South, rarely seeing the sky.
Machinery executives I talked to said visitors to their booths expressed confidence that the U.S. economy has hit the bottom. It can't get any worse, right? Inventories will be rebuilt. Idle injection presses will slowly, one by one, get started again.
Some exhibitors sold machines, and in some cases the buyers just walked in and filled out the paperwork, car-dealer style. But the old swagger of the U.S. injection press salesperson is gone.
If you've been paying attention, you already know the litany: molding work lost to China. Auctions following bankruptcies. The financial crisis and credit crunch. Eight years or so of pretty weak sales. It's hard to be anything but a realist (which is why I'm not in sales).
If the industry has hit bottom, at some point the overall U.S. injection press business will stage a rebound. But when? It's not going to happen this year, and according to some frank-talking executives, it may not come until the second half of 2010. That's a long time.
Most injection press companies already have cut jobs. On the final day of NPE, Milacron Inc., the largest U.S. plastics machinery maker, was sold in bankruptcy court to two investor groups.
In 2008, Sumitomo Heavy Industries Ltd. of Japan bought Germany-based Demag Plastics Group, and Wittmann KunststoffgerÃ¤te GmbH, the Austrian maker of robots and auxiliary equipment, bought the struggling Battenfeld injection press business.
KraussMaffei AG partnered with Toshiba Machine Co. Ltd. to develop KM's new AX all-electric press. The relationship only covers technology, as both companies remain independent.
Several factors would seem to point to more Japanese-European consolidation.
Japan's economy is reeling. Japanese press makers are the world leaders in all-electric technology and hold patents. And the Japanese historically have a hard time selling in Europe.
At NPE2009, I ran this by some key machinery executives who are usually in the know. Is anything going on? They said it's unusually quiet not even any rumors. But they all think it makes sense. Something has to give, if this period of economic pain lasts much longer.
I think something indeed will give. Over the next 12-month period, we could see fundamental changes that will reshape the world of plastics machinery.
Bregar is an Akron, Ohio-based Plastics News senior reporter.