Coming out of the Great Recession, the U.S. blow machinery market has not been as red-hot as the injection molding press business, and that steady-as-she-goes attitude has continued in 2014.
“It was just constantly steady,” said Gary Carr, Bekum America Corp.'s national sales director. “We're very happy with this business year. It's not been record setting but it's been very strong. And very consistent. That really has really made it such a pleasant business year.”
Machinery sales for the company in Williamston, Mich., came from food and beverage, medical and agricultural chemicals. Bekum is selling large, highly automated systems.
Carr still sees some pent-up demand from after the recession. “We go into 2015 with a strong outlook, with an optimistic business forecast,” he said. “Some of the programs we're looking at our quite large, and that could make a huge impact in the business outlook.”
Parent company Bekum Maschinenfabriken GmbH made news Sept. 22 when company officials announced that Bekum was moving production from its original home in Berlin to another plant in Traismauer, Austria. Bekum's headquarters remains in Berlin, where the company was founded in 1959. Bekum America is not affected by the realignment.
Packaging is a major consumer of plastic, and two industry analysts said the industry should have stable growth in 2014.
The first-ever Plastics News Blow Molding Business Index was 119.6 for the third quarter. A value above 100 indicates that business levels increased from the previous quarter. Most respondents said new orders, production and export orders and employees were steady or higher in the third quarter, Bill Wood, Plastics News economic editor said. On a more negative side, backlog and prices received for blow molded containers were in negative territory — proof, Wood said, that buyers of the end products still have much leverage.
During a presentation at the Society of Plastics Engineers' Blow Molding Conference in October, Joel Morales, IHS Chemical's polyolefins director, said PET for blow molding will remain flat this year.
For machinery manufacturers, the growth is targeted to key markets and new technologies. Kautex Maschinenbau GmbH introduced its first all-electric blow molding press at K 2013, the KBB.
The U.S. unit in North Branch, N.J., Kautex Machines Inc., had a record year in 2014, according to President and CEO Bill Farrant. “Automotive is still our core business, but we are making good inroads into packaging,” he said. “The all-electric machine was the big introduction last year at the K show, and it was just another layer on our packaging portfolio. We already have the hydraulic high-output KLS machines. We have the workhorse machines from China, the KCC machines. Now we've got this all-electric machine, which is the next level up.”
Farrant said Kautex's six-layer blow molding machines are strong players in automotive fuel tanks and tanks for lawn and garden equipment. As environmental regulations get even tougher, multi-layer offers the most reliable technology, he said.
And Farrant remains hopeful that North American automakers will follow Europe and adopt plastic fuel filler lines — which typically are seven layers and can be made on Kautex's suction-blow molding machines.
W. Amsler Equipment Inc. is a long-time manufacturer of all-electric reheat stretch blow molders in Richmond Hill, Ontario. Heidi Amsler, sales and marketing manager, said custom molders targeting the wide-mouth PET container market are buying the company's spin trimmers, molding the bottles from a parison then trimming them. The process allows you to use a smaller preform, and use less resin because of the lighter neck finish, she said.
A 55-ounce PET wide-mouth jar netted Amsler an award at the SPE Blow Molders Conference.
Machinery executives said that beverage manufacturers continue to invest in-house blow molding machines, a trend called self-manufacturing. “We should end up the year ahead of target,” said Jon Elward, director of plastics packaging at KHS Corpoplast North America Inc. in Waukesha, Wis. “The overall business is not really growing, but it's shifting. Instead of converters producing bottles, companies are blowing bottles more and more in-line with their filling lines.”
As U.S. consumption of carbonated soft drinks continues to shrink, manufacturers are looking to self-manufacturing to lower shipping costs. In April, KHS Corpoplast announced that the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Northern New England had invested in a KHS InnoPET Biomax Series IV stretch blow molding machine — the first time the Londonderry, N.H., operation has made its bottles inline. For decades, CCNNE had sourced all its containers exclusively from Southeastern Container Inc., the company said.
Elward notes that converters and custom molders still make about 75 percent of PET containers. Those firms are replacing older equipment to compete, he said.
Krones Inc. experienced a slow first quarter, then business picked up, according to David Raabe, director of blow molding and key account converter business at the company in Franklin, Wis.
“We're starting to see some movements out there with replacements,” as blow molding officials place more emphasis on energy consumption and productivity, he said.
What about 2015?
“We want to exceed what we did this year. It's all going to be based on our economy and what happens in Washington,” Raabe said. “I think there's money out there, it's just a question that a lot of the mid-sized companies are being very conservative of how they want to move their assets around.”
In 2015, Italian blow molding machinery maker Sipa SpA is expanding its capacity to build and refurbish injection molds, and hot runners for PET preforms, by 20 percent, at the Sipa North America plant in Atlanta. Sipa now is a major U.S. supplier of preform molds, said Enrico Gribaudo, managing director. The company can refurbish any brand of molds and hot runners, he said.
Uniloy Milacron Inc. makes extrusion blow molding machines for packaging. Group Vice President Dave Skala expects overall shipments for the sector will be down in 2014, after pent-up demand fueled investment after the downturn.
“We went through a period where 2012 and 2013 were exceptionally strong. And I think in the first half of 2014, there was a certain bit of digestion, a pause as people were getting those machines filled up with volume,” Skala said. He thinks the U.S. market has leveled out, which should be the story in 2015, too.
Meanwhile, Tecumseh, Mich.-based Uniloy Milacron is moving forward with new machinery technology that takes advantage of diverse holdings by its parent company, Milacron LLC. Uniloy announced a partnership with blow mold maker Big 3 Precision Products Inc. to bring Mold-Masters hot runners and Kortec coinjection technology to injection blow molding.
Speaking in late November, Skala said the company is finishing up a machine that brings a coinjection molded barrier layer to a medical fluids application. “This could give us a big opportunity in medical,” he said.
Blow molding veteran Robert Jackson thinks it's time to produce an economically priced, U.S.-made extrusion blow molding machine — and his Jackson Machinery Inc. is going to do it, competing with imported machines from China and India. The Port Washington, Wis.-based company has designed a double-sided bottle blow molder, with two clamps, one set of heads and two sets of blow pins, which Jackson said will produce more bottles for the money.
“I have to build an economical, bullet-proof machine,” Jackson said. He added the new machine will be “somewhere between a Chinese machine and a Bekum. And if I can do that, I think we'll sell a lot of them.”
Jackson also is relatively bullish on the long-moribund accumulator-head blow molding press market. The reason: Most of the rebuilt, used machines from the automotive meltdown have been snapped up in the last five years, and there are few available. So Jackson Machinery has designed accumulator-head blow molders with heads of 100, 150 and 200 pounds, targeting the still-growing market for kayaks, paddle boards and surfboards.
Jackson thinks 2015 will be “very, very good. On a scale of one to 10, I'm looking at a 10.”
Blow molders will see a new player next year: Italy-based Plastiblow srl is launching a North American sales effort. Frank Varuzza, sales development manager, said Plastiblow is working with Hamilton Plastic Systems Ltd. in Mississauga, Ontario, to handle sales and service in the United States and Canada.
Plastiblow plans to exhibit a machine at NPE 2015. Varuzza said it's a good time to tap into the market.
“The U.S. market in blow molding, I think, will look promising for the next few years. It's been pretty good for the last year or so. A lot has to do with some reshoring of business,” he said.