Blow molding machinery makers say their markets are solid with strong growth in packaging for PET and polyethylene in a broad range of end uses.
Automation and new blow molding technology continue to advance. At the Society of Plastics Engineers' Annual Blow Molding Conference in October, industry members saw displays of high-speed case packing systems and new collaborative robots that can work side by side with human employees.
At the ABC conference, an official of Sidel Group, Thierry Deau, spun a tale of an “intelligent blow molder” that could even set itself up to run a new mold, figuring out all the processing parameters. It's part of Sidel's Agility 4.0.
Machinery makers are looking forward to NPE2018, when the show in Orlando, Fla., will hold its first-ever Bottle Zone, clustering blow molding technology in one area. Stable prices for polyolefins, thanks to the U.S. boom in shale gas drilling, also should help, some company officials said.
“The outlook for polyethylene pricing should be going down, so we should be in a strong position for the foreseeable future,” said Steve Rocheleau, president of Rocheleau Tool and Die Co. Inc. “The outlook is good, and stable or declining PE prices certainly helps our business. People are more confident to invest in machinery when they're not worried that the price is going to jump.”
This year marked a big year for barrier resins, as Solvay Specialty Polymers introduced Verian High Barrier Polyester, a barrier layer for PET bottles. Both the barrier layer and the layers sandwiching it are made of the same basic polymer. Solvay, worked with Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd., the maker of injection presses for molding PET preforms, to develop Verian.
Production of Verian is expected to begin in the second half of 2018. At the Drinktec show in Munich, Husky molded preforms using Verian for a 17-gram carbonated soft drink bottle on a 72-cavity mold.
Meanwhile, a non-barrier PET application took center stage this year. Beverage Marketing Corp. reported that 2017 was the landmark year when U.S. consumption of bottled water passed carbonated soft drinks for the first time.
“Business has been very good. We've actually had the best year of Nissei ASB history in North America and globally,” said Jamie Pace, vice president and general manager.
Nissei ASB Co.'s Japanese parent, Nissei ASB Machine Co., makes injection stretch blow molding machines. Last year, the U.S. operation relocated to a 46,000-square-foot headquarters in Smyrna, Ga. — more than double the size of its previous building. Pace said the new building has CNC machining equipment so Nissei ASB now can make molds and do modifications in Georgia. The facility also has room to stock more blow molding machines and spare parts.
Pace said the ability to sample molds, for brands beyond Nissei ASB, will help the company win new business. The Japanese company also is adding production capacity with new factories, Pace said.
Since the last NPE in 2015, Pace said that most of the company's blow molders have been upgraded to new versions with servo-hydraulic packages, which give about a 30 percent reduction in power consumption. And this year at Drinktec, Nissei ASB showed the first-ever triple-row, one-step injection stretch blow molding machines, which can turn out 20,000 bottles an hour.
Several blow molding machinery companies finished expansions or announced them this year. Italian blow molding press maker Magic MP SpA will be located in Negri Bossi SpA's North American headquarters in Plymouth Township, Mich., next year. Krones Inc. made news by announcing a new training and technology center in its headquarters city of Franklin, Wis., and opened a California office. In November, Kautex Maschinenbau GmbH opened a new assembly hall at its Bonn, Germany, headquarters to meet demand for its blow molding equipment, especially for packaging.
Amsler Equipment Inc. will make a splash at NPE2018 with an all-electric blow molder with 12 servomotors running four cavities. “Our plan is to demo one at NPE,” said Heidi Amsler, sales and marketing manager for the company in Richmond Hill, Ontario.
Amsler said that will generate some excitement in 2018. “It is a big year for us. We're anticipating selling a lot of machines next year,” she said.
What about this this year, as it winds down? “It's been pretty good,” Amsler said. “It hasn't been groundbreaking or amazing, but it hasn't been bad either.”
Amsler said the company has seen requests for blow molding machinery for larger-format water bottles, for example, five-gallon sizes, as well as big containers for cold-brew coffee for commercial buyers like restaurants. Hot-fill continues to grow in sports drinks and teas. “What's happening is there's more smaller companies trying to get into it,” she said, making Amsler machines a good choice.
“The PET market is just as hot as it can be, and it's continuing to grow,” said Bob Jackson. He said Eastman Chemical Co.'s Tritan copolyester is growing quickly, helping the sector.
Extrusion blow molding machines are the major focus of his company, Jackson Machinery Inc. in Port Washington, Wis. The company makes new machines and rebuilds used ones.
“We've just been rebuilding machines like crazy. I've made one new machine for every 20 rebuilds I've had,” he said.
On the new-machine front, Jackson said the big news is the switch to all-electric machines by the Germans and other European players. “Finally, the machine is smarter, so it does a lot of things on its own. So it allows for less mistakes and less-trained people.”
And the lack of trained people is a major problem, long term, for the blow molding industry, processors and machinery makers alike, Jackson said. “It's not getting any better,” he said. “It's getting worse before it gets better.”
A strong machinery market makes it more important to get new employees. “We're busy. We don't see any letup at all,” Jackson said.
Gary Carr said Bekum America Corp. also is busy.
“This has been a very strong business year. Machinery sales are close to record levels,” he said. “And that is most indicative of a robust economy in the U.S. at the moment.”
Carr, vice president of sales at Bekum America in Williamston, Mich., has noticed a big change this year: a longer-term outlook for capital investments by blow molders.
“The general outlook in the industry is our customers are busy, their plants are seeming to run at close to capacity. And c ompanies, for first time in a long time, are looking to add investments for future capacity and not just when they have a new contract,” he said.