Machinery executives say U.S. sales of blow molding machinery have held up in 2011, following a 2010 that was marked by a strong bounce-back from the Great Recession.
Makers of packaging — PET blow molders and extrusion blow molders of polyethylene containers — have continued to invest. And accumulator-head machines continued to emerge from the doldrums with another decent year, industry officials said.
In business news, blow molding giant Graham Packaging Co. Inc. bought Italian machinery maker Techne SpA in Castel Guelfo di Bologna, which had filed for protection from creditors. Another Italian blow molding machine maker, Automa SpA in Crespellano, opened a technical center in Wisconsin to secure more North American business.
Gary Carr said the plastics machinery business remains healthy, in contrast to dire headlines about the U.S. economy. “Overall it has been a pretty solid year. We are satisfied with 2011. Comparative to the news out there, we should be tickled,” he said.
Carr, national sales director of Bekum America Corp., said packaging innovations are the key to demand. “New projects and applications drive new equipment needs,” he said. “Replacements of old machinery, those are always more difficult sales.
Bekum of Williamston, Mich., is adding staff and gearing up for 2012. “Our machinery is going into a lot of different market sectors. The nice thing is, that diversity results in stability,” Carr said.
Dave Skala of Uniloy Milacron said some packaging customers still are releasing money for projects that were put on hold during the recession. “I think we're still riding that wave,” said the vice president and general manager of the operation in Tecumseh, Mich.
Skala points to three ongoing trends driving machinery sales: self-manufacturing, where beverage makers are blowing their own bottles in-house; product differentiation; and a move to sustainable technology. “Green” packaging drives new bottle designs, new materials and thinner walls. “That has a tendency to move them into a new and better technology platform,” he said.
Uniloy Milacron's two- and three-layer technology and the Clean-Blow sterile and pressurized clamping area are helping to improve shelf life, he said.
W. Amsler Equipment Inc., a maker of all-electric stretch blow molding machines, had an “excellent sales year,” according to President Werner Amsler.
“We're getting more quality inquiries now than ever, and the actual sales are very good,” he said. The company is based in Richmond Hill, Ontario.
During the recession, machinery auctions dampened sales of new plastics equipment. Now auction activity has slowed. Still, Constar International Inc. sold 13 blow molding machines and 22 injection molding machines this year, as the packaging maker exited commodity PET bottles.
Jon Elward, plastics packaging director at Flemington, N.J.-based KHS Corpoplast North America Inc., said the self-manufacturing trend continues to move into bottled water and consumer soft drinks. Bottles for hot-fill beverages such as sports drinks and teas are more difficult to blow, he said, so plastics converters still primarily mold those packages.
Elward said sales for 2011 “will be pretty well on par with 2010, but that's still good because 2010 was a dramatic improvement from 2009.”
Side SA, a Barcelona, Spain-based maker of linear stretch reheat blow molding machines for PET bottles, beefed up its U.S. exposure by naming Stretch Blow Systems LLC in Fort Myers, Fla., its agent. SBS was started by the owners of R.T. Kuntz Co. Inc., a material-conveying systems supplier.
“We've spent 30 years designing resin-conveying systems. We're [using] our network of manufacturers to help companies that want to make plastic bottles on a linear machine,” said Scott Thompson, SBS general manager.
Sidel Inc. in Atlanta went from its best year in 2007 to its worst year in 2008, according to Keith Boss, vice president and general manager.
“Since 2008 we [have been] in a recovery mode. We're not in a growth mode. So 2009, 2010 and now 2011 is three years of recovery. This year, it's not as strong a recovery as it was last year,” Boss said. He is predicting moderate growth of 5-10 percent in 2012.
New Sidel products that reduce costs should boost sales, said Boss, citing the Rollsleeve technology for forming sleeves on bottles, which he said reduces label cost about 15 percent from conventional methods.
R&B Plastics Machinery LLC “ended 2010 extremely strong and we had a great year.”
“For 2011, the first six months were extremely strong,” said Al Hodge, president of the Saline, Mich., firm.
“We saw a downturn in business starting in June, July, August and then it's come back fairly strong in September and October,” Hodge said. He added that rebuilding machines remained strong all year, as did sister company Monroe Mold LLC, which expanded its plant in nearby Monroe, Mich.
But Hodge said credit remains hard to get. “You still see a tightening of capital. People can't get money,” he said. “It's still very difficult. Unless these projects are funded internally, it's not happening.”
At W. Müller USA Inc. in Agawam, Mass., President Wolfgang Meyer said renewed investments in new packaging designs such as fading colors and barrier-layer bottles have fueled business that supplies multilayer heads for blow molding. “If they get new projects, meaning a new mold, they often have to buy a new head,” he said.
To give today's smaller engines some kick, U.S. cars are finally getting turbocharged diesel engines, long popular in Europe. That should mean more demand for suction blow molding machines, said Bill Farrant, president and CEO of Kautex Machines Inc. in North Branch, N.J. The process, also called three-dimensional molding, can make air ducts for the turbocharger out of glass-fiber-filled engineering resins, with no flash.
“I think it's inevitable,” Farrant said. “The problem is, if some Tier 1 investors can't invest in [suction blow molding] soon, some competitor will come over from Europe where they already do it.”
Graham Engineering Corp. “had a pretty good year” in 2011, said Dave Yenor, vice president of global business development for the York., Pa.-based firm. “There was still a bit of pent-up demand earlier in the year, but the second half of the year is going beyond that to customers regaining confidence and moving forward with projects,” he said.
Accumulator heads moving up slowly
After years on life support, the U.S. market for accumulator-head machines is showing signs of a weak recovery, machinery executives said. The equipment is used to blow mold large products such as walls for storage sheds and automotive duct work.
“It's still a little soft relative to the heyday years, but it's coming back. But it's still not large numbers like it used to be,” said Yenor.
That's for sure, said Robert Jackson. The president of Port Washington, Wis.-based Jackson Machinery Inc. said the U.S. industry manufactured 125 new accumulator-head machines in 2000. Now it's less than 10 a year, he said.
Even so, Jackson is bullish on the sector. He predicts the U.S. market will double next year to around 25 machines — mainly because auctions have dried up and there are not many used machines around anymore, especially large ones.
Jackson also noted that blow molding is moving into some fast-growing big products, like kayaks, which traditionally have been made by rotational molding.
Another growth area is foamed automotive ducts for heating and air conditioning.
“I see machinery exploding because there's just nothing out there in used machines,” Jackson said. He expects a solid 2012 for both new-machine sales and rebuilding existing ones.
Jackson said machinery makers need to develop designs that reduce the price of new accumulator-head blow molding units, to avoid sending customers into “sticker shock.”