The North American thermoforming industry as a whole experienced less than 2 percent growth in sales in 2010 compared with 2009, according to data collected by Plastics News for its annual ranking.
For 2010, total sales into thermoforming were $9.3 billion among 235 companies; by comparison, sales in 2009 were roughly $9.1 billion among 237 companies.
For packaging thermoformers, especially those specializing in food packaging, the view seems to be that business during the Great Recession was stable.
Companies whose end markets were tied more than 70 percent to packaging seemed to have experienced slightly better growth, 3.3 percent, than the overall market. Eighty companies fell into that category for 2010, with total sales of $7.8 billion. For 2008 and 2009, 83 companies made up that category, which experienced 4.2 percent growth in sales from 2008-10.
Separately, companies whose end markets were tied more than 70 percent to industrial seemed to fare better for the 2008-10 period. For 2010, 136 companies fell into that category, with total sales of $1.3 billion. In 2008, 134 companies fell into the category with $1.2 billion in total sales, representing a climb of roughly 11 percent.
Still, for industrial thermoformers, business conditions were very tough during the Great Recession.
They took a hammer, said Peter Mooney, president of Plastics Custom Research Services in Advance, N.C. A lot of industrial thermoformers are [still] holding on by their fingernails.
For the 2011-12 period, he said, manufacturing will rebound, but he's not certain it's a self-sustaining recovery.
I'm not gloomy but I'm also not optimistic that we're going to have a significant recovery, he said.
Officials expect a gradual recovery with consolidation in thermoforming. Changes and upgrades in technology have become a necessary investment as firms do what it takes to survive.
The economy is slowly but surely recovering, said Ulf Buergel, president and CEO of Penda Corp., in a Feb. 11 phone interview. I sure hope that will continue and oil prices will not slow it down. In the forming industry, there are good opportunities for companies that are still around. I think over last two to three years the weaker companies have not been able to make it through this trough and we have seen a lot of companies going away or consolidating.
The thermoforming industry needs further consolidation in order to get healthier and serve its customers better, he said. You have to have a certain size and certain differentiation.
In 2009, Penda and competitor Durakon Industries Inc. merged. Later that same year, Penda closed down extrusion and thermoforming lines in Lapeer, Mich., that made pick-up truck bedliners. Buergel evaluated the Tier 1 auto supplier's expertise now, with the combined forces of two firms.
That merger positioned us better to grow and do what we are about to do now in 2011, Buergel said. We've all learned a lot in recent years, including the need to keep ahead of change.
The company had to step outside its comfort zone of automotive. It now is taking the truck bedliner technology and putting it to use in water management. The new product line is marketed as Smart Ditch and is used in storm water management, erosion control, and landfills.
We're using our core capabilities in large-part HDPE thermoforming and taking that technology into a new industry and new application, which happens to be a new-to-the-world application. We've launched the product and we're developing market right now, he said.
The company's investments in its three plants include changing screws in its extruders to gain state-of-the-art technology.
To support its growth goals, Penda is optimizing inventory control and implementing robotics integration; upgrades to extrusion, thermoforming and assembly equipment; and an array of workforce training programs.
We are investing in equipment but also in other support areas in order to become as efficient as possible, he said.
Penda will launch a major OEM program this summer in which it will use glass-filled polypropylene.
We will be able to extrude that into the sheets and form it into parts all internally, he said.
For other companies, especially those in packaging, getting green literally is translating into green. Anchor Packaging Inc. of St. Louis has seen its sales grow from $165 million in 2009 to $185 million in 2010.
Officials did not return calls seeking comment, but Anchor's website tells the tale of reusable PP containers for Kentucky Fried Chicken. Anchor said it won a Greener Package Award from Packaging Today for the container.