Guangzhou, China — The massive China Import and Export Fair — informally known as the Canton Fair — traditionally caters more to budget-conscious buyers from places like Southeast Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe.
Yet even here, amid the pressure of closing deals at the three-week long event, plastics companies were focused on upgrading technology and looking for new ways to be competitive.
At the booth for Foshan-based Kebeln Plastic Machinery Co. Ltd., General Manager Gao Conghua touted new apps that work with the company's extrusion machines.
"We're putting a lot of effort into remote diagnosis applications," Gao said through an interpreter.
Kebeln's bread-and-butter is PVC pipe-making machines, but it is edging into peripherals with a line of pipe-packaging machines that feature Industry 4.0 connectivity.
To stand out in a crowded domestic marketplace, Kebeln said it's considering setting up a German research center within the next three years. "The strong competition inside China is leading companies to explore overseas markets," Gao said.
While there are plenty of signs of difficulties ahead — the American Chamber of Commerce in China said in a mid-April report that 2017 could be "one of the most challenging years in decades for U.S. companies in China" — statistics show the country's plastics machinery industry's exports continue to grow.
Last year, China exported 9,057 plastics machines, up 7.5 percent from the year before, according to the Beijing-based China Plastics Machinery Industry Association.
As always with the Canton Fair, there's a strong sense that one has wandered into a modern-day Rick's Cafe Americain in Casablanca, teeming with buyers from around the world haggling at booths so tiny that many vendors have no room to show their equipment.
Still, the event is huge on China's export calendar. About 25,000 exhibiting companies and 180,000 foreign buyers crowd the fair, which runs in three phases over three weeks in Guangzhou.
Beijing's much-ballyhooed One-Belt, One-Road initiative, aimed at forging closer trade links with countries along the old Silk Road, showed signs of traction at the fair. Gao noted Kebeln secured sales to customers in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Buoyed by show sales to customers from Iran and Egypt, sales representative Belinda Lin of injection molder Guangdong Haixing Plastic & Rubber Co. was upbeat: "This show is great!"
Haixing sells to the household and kitchen products industries, making molds and manufacturing with 250 injection molding machines. It said many of its products wind up on the shelves of Target, Wal-Mart and other retailers.
To keep costs down, Haixing has embraced automation, such as robots that do packaging, said Lin.
The Canton Fair is very much a blue collar affair, with plastics machinery firms shoehorned among purveyors of bubble-gum-making machines, juicers and deli equipment.