Extruders make everything from medical tubing and film and sheet for packaging — strong markets— to vinyl windows and siding — these days, not so hot.
The diversity sums up the North American extruder market in 2011. The recession continues for the key building products segment, but everywhere else the outlook seems rosy.
“We definitely saw kind of a wave that made a big surge in the fourth quarter of 2010. This year, orders have continued strong. We've had solid orders all year,” said Jim Murphy, president of Extrusion Systems at Davis-Standard LLC in Pawcatuck, Conn.
Sales of wire and cable coating lines are down, but other construction customers are looking for new technologies to improve physical properties of their products, he said.
U.S. home construction remains weak, pulled down by unemployment and foreclosures that have reduced the value of homes. But the market is moving in the right direction, according to the Washington-based National Association of Home Builders. NAHB predicts a modest increase of housing starts in 2012, followed by a strong 37 percent jump in 2013. Remodeling activity picked up in the first part of 2011, but then cooled down, NAHB said.
Dave Lawrence of Milacron LLC said construction will slowly recover.
“We have a significant number of customers in the construction industry, and certainly they are operating at reduced capacity. We've seen most of the construction customers we talk to report a slight pickup from last year,” said Lawrence, president of worldwide plastics machinery for injection, extrusion and mold technologies at Milacron LLC in Cincinnati.
Paul Caprio of KraussMaffei Corp. in Florence, Ky., said a few construction products are booming, such as polyethylene pipe for gas and oil distribution.
“At least for KraussMaffei, the business is near zero for anything housing-related. But the oil and gas business is making up for that for our company. It's very strong,” he said.
For R&B Plastics Machinery LLC, strong markets this year have included custom extrusion for small extruders, and reclaim and corrugated polyethylene pipe for the larger lines, said Al Hodge, president of the Saline, Mich., firm. “It's been a very good year. We're building backlog for 2012,” he said.
Single-screw extruder business at Ashaway, R.I.-based American Kuhne Inc. is back to pre-recession levels, according to David Citron, vice president of sales and marketing. Kuhne, which does not release specific financial figures, said 2011 sales increased about 20 percent over 2010.
“Medical continues to be a strong market for us,” Citron said. “We have many new products that continue to help our growth in medical. We're also seeing more growth in industrial markets, and even a little bit of life in automotive.”
Canada avoided a U.S.-style housing crash.
“Canada's still pretty strong from a construction standpoint,” said Dirk Koch, vice president of sales at Deltaplast Machinery Ltd. of Concord, Ontario. “Our base of customers in the U.S. has been very quiet, but we have very strong sales here in Canada.”
Some customers are delaying projects, still uncertain about the economy. “We're a little bit concerned, but I think everybody is at this point,” Koch said.
Packaging: Comfort food in unsure times
“We saw no slowdown [during] the recession” in North America, said Andrew Wheeler, vice president of Windmoeller & Hoelscher Corp. — even as business fell off in other parts of the world.
“The flexible packaging industry is probably about as recession-proof as any industry,” Wheeler said. “Packaging doesn't slow one iota during a recession. In fact, sometimes we've seen snack foods go up during a recession.”
Cue Homer Simpson: Mmmm ... doughnuts.
Business has been strong in 2011 for both blown film lines and printing equipment at W&H in Lincoln, R.I.
“It will end up being an excellent year. Not a record year, but still very strong, probably the third-best in our history,” Wheeler said.
But his crystal ball is cloudy for 2012. “We're seeing the order intake slowing down now. So the prognosis for 2012 is that it seems cautious, actually.”
Sheet extrusion equipment for packaging is the biggest single market for Processing Technologies International LLC in Aurora, Ill. The company held two industry open houses this year for its new dryerless sheet line for PET and polylactic acid, made in partnership with Costruzioni Meccaniche Luigi Bandera SpA of Varese, Italy. PTi President Dana Hanson is “very optimistic” for 2012. “We're going to see a step up over business this year. We gauge that based on the projects that we have in the pipeline,” he said.
David Nunes said Hosokawa Alpine American Inc. booked three large blown film lines at the K show in Germany a year ago, and strong business has continued through 2011. The company booked a number of machines, including three nine-layer lines, three seven-layer systems, several five-layer and three-layer lines and even some monolayer machines — “the most demanding barrier-type applications to relatively simple bag applications, and everything in between.”
Nunes, president of the Natick, Mass., company, said Hosokawa Alpine is replacing old equipment. “It's really efficiency and productivity, and companies are really focusing on that,” he said.
Mirek Planeta, president of Macro Engineering & Technology Inc., said business was “overwhelming” in 2010 to meet pent-up demand. “But in 2011, we see it as very steady,” he said.
Macro, which makes blown and cast film equipment in Mississauga, Ontario, is sold out until July, according to Planeta.
Like Alpine American, Reifenhäuser Kiefel Extrusion sold multilayer and monolayer lines.
“We thought monolayer was pretty much dead in the U.S., and we got four orders for high-density machines,” said Steve DeSpain, vice president of sales and marketing at the business in Danvers, Mass.
David Schroeder, who joined Welex Inc. in midyear as president and CEO, said accelerated depreciation for machinery purchases helped some customers pull the trigger faster on orders.
North America accounts for about half the sales at the sheet line maker in Blue Bell, Pa.
“At the moment, things seem to be picking up,” Schroeder said in early November. “We have a lot of inquiries and a decent backlog.”
Gloucester Engineering Co. Inc. also got a new top executive this year — CEO Mark Steele will lead the film equipment maker that emerged Jan. 3 from Chapter 11 bankruptcy under new owner Blue Wolf Capital Partners LLC. The company has hired technicians and engineers this year and now employs more than 100 people, he said.
“It's a restart of our business. It's not really a turnaround anymore, and it's not a startup business. The business went through a difficult period,” Steele said of the Gloucester, Mass.-based company.
He promised some product introductions and upgraded equipment at NPE2012.
“The next thing is to restart the innovation engine,” he said.