The U.S. market for injection molding machines is beginning to sound like déjà vu all over again. Yogi Berra was a molder of great quotes, not plastics parts. But machinery leaders say press shipments are set to be around 4,000 in 2017.
If that happens, it would mark the third year in a row that shipments reach a level that press manufacturers consider a benchmark rate.
The dollar volume has increased more than unit volume this year, they said, which could signal sales of larger-tonnage machines.
A big reason: continued strength in the key automotive segment. Industry observers had expected automotive's long boom to fall off this year, and that happened for much of the year. Then the back-to-back hurricanes Harvey and Irma hit Texas and Florida this fall, flooding into cars, homes and whole cities. The replacement car sales gave automakers their first monthly gain in September.
Machinery leaders say new models, not total volume, are what fuel capital investment.
"Car sales are great, but that doesn't mean we sell more equipment. How we sell more equipment is new car platforms," said Sonny Morneault, vice president of sales at Wittman Battenfeld Inc. in Torrington, Conn. "Our automotive Tier 1, 2, 3 customers, they're still investing. They're still opening new plants. They're still buying new central material handling systems. They're still buying robots and machines."
And automotive is the single market that can lift all boats in the injection press world.
"They buy 100 machines at a clip," Morneault said. "It's just not happening in any other industry but automotive."
All eyes are on automotive, said Paul Caprio, president of KraussMaffei Corp. "Everyone's expecting a slowdown, but nobody's seeing one when it comes to automotive," he said. "So in that sense, it's still super positive."
But other markets have been strong this year, too. Caprio lists what he calls "logistical packaging," which includes collapsible boxes, recycling bins and garbage carts — products that, like automotive, are molded on large-tonnage machines. Medical and packaging also remain solid, boosting sales of Netstal presses for thin-wall molding, he said.
"Everything is moving on pretty solid ground," Caprio said.
Toshiba Machine Co. America also has sold machines for molding collapsible bins, garbage cans and other products for home improvement stores, according to Tom McKevitt, general manager based in Elk Grove Village, Ill.
He said Toshiba is "finishing up a strong year" in both all-electric machines and hydraulic presses. Most of the increase has been for midsized and larger machines, with clamping forces ranging from 720 to 1,950 tons.
"This year it seemed like we sold more electrics than before in that tonnage range," McKevitt said.
Friedrich Kanz, president of Arburg Inc., said press sales could hit 4,100 or 4,200 in 2017, which is about the same as 2016.
"So very stable. Very steady. Very good," he said. "It's at a solid level. And I have no problem when it's not growing another 5 or 10 percent, so that means it's a healthy level we have."
Like other executives, he said car and light truck model changes drive business. Regardless, Kanz said, it's not realistic to expect ever higher annual sales for cars.