The U.S. blow molding machinery market remained healthy in 2018, with some manufacturers reporting strong growth and others a spotty year with some sluggishness.
Industrial blow molding faced tougher sledding with a slowdown in the automotive sector. But packaging remains strong, most executives said.
Gary Carr, vice president of sales at Bekum America Corp., said customers this year seem to be doing more strategic planning about investments in blow molding machinery.
"In years past, companies would make purchase decisions when they had programs in hand. Now they're investing in future business opportunity," he said. "There's more long-range business planning."
For the first time, Bekum America had two booths at NPE in May: a main booth in the West Hall and a stand in the South Hall's Bottle Zone.
Carr said 2018 "will go down as a banner year."
"We went into NPE2018, and normally business tails off before a major trade show. We didn't see that this year, it just continued and it hasn't slowed since," he said.
The brisk machinery business has led to longer lead times, however, out to six months or longer. Carr said the supply chain is full for key machinery components like motors, pumps, barrels and screws.
Based in Williamston, Mich., Bekum America has a solid backlog.
"We'll be busy well into 2019," Carr said.
Jamie Pace, who got promoted to president and CEO of Nissei ASB Co., said 2017 was the best year in the company's history, both globally for the Japanese parent company and in the United States. That's hard to repeat a second year. Business in 2018 was not as strong good as forecasted, but it still was good, he said.
Pace said Nissei ASB said business did slow before NPE2018, as customers waited for the big show in Orlando. But it didn't really pick up after NPE.
"But now, Q4 is very strong," he said.
Nissei ASB's technical center at its 2-year-old U.S. headquarters in Smyrna, Ga., is busy, as the company can help customers develop projects.
"And the mold modification capability is getting very good utilization," Pace said.
Pace said the strong fourth quarter means "we have high expectations for 2019, and we've got a number of large projects that are in the fold," he said.
W. Amsler Equipment Inc., which moved into a larger headquarters and factory this year, in Bolton, Ontario, continues to target the market for wine and beer in PET bottles. Beer was the theme of Amsler's booth at the Bottle Zone during NPE2018, and the company has been exhibiting at craft brewer conferences.
"We're going to promote the plastic bottle alternative, both the large-size and the keg-size bottles," said Heidi Amsler, sales and marketing manager for the machinery maker. At the Ontario Craft Brewers Conference, the company supported a distributor currently in glass bottles but now adding plastic wine bottles and working to expand into PET beer bottles.
"We've developed a preform. Now we have two different bottle shapes," she said.
The 34,000-square-foot plant Bolton gives Amsler Equipment enough space to do more bottle design projects, including conversion. Heidi Amsler said the company also has more room to do limited production for customers.
"We're adding more equipment so we can help people out," she said.
Krones Inc. of Franklin, Wis., had an up-and-down year, said Dave Raabe, director of blow molding technology.
"It's been an odd year. With the economy picking up the way it's been, we thought we'd be in better shape and everything. It's been on the sluggish side," he said.
The U.S. operation's German parent company, Krones AG, made news this year when it bought PET preform mold maker MHT Holding AG in Hochheim, Germany. Krones supplies complete beverage lines, and the pickup of molds closed a gap in the equipment maker's value chain, officials said.
In another preform-mold deal, Tech-Long Packaging Machinery Co. Ltd., the Chinese maker of PET stretch blow molding machines and beverage packaging lines, announced at NPE2018 it was partnering with Chinese mold maker Unique Injection Molding Systems. The two firms launched joint efforts in the Americas and much of Europe. Tech-Long Americas is based in Duluth, Ga.
Kautex Machines Inc., well-known for its automotive fuel tank blow molding systems, is targeting a bigger share of the packaging market as a way to keep growing, President Bill Farrant said. German parent company Kautex Maschinenbau GmbH has built a 54,000-square-foot production hall in Bonn to build packaging machinery in higher volumes.
Of course, Kautex still plays in industrial blow molding. Farrant said automotive has slowed down a bit. But Kautex has seen growth in machines for specialty markets such as kayaks, garden sheds and industrial drums.
"We're still very positive for the packaging market. We have a healthy backorder, and our challenges are to reduce our lead times," Farrant said. All machinery producers are facing supply chain issues to get components such as linear bearings, proportional valves and gear boxes, he said.
Business has been stable this year for Rocheleau Tool and Die Co., which makes extrusion blow molding machines in Fitchburg, Mass.
"It's been OK. It's been a steady business but very spotty. Things tend to come in clusters now, it seems," President Steve Rocheleau said.
Food packaging is the company's largest market, an area that is steady but not explosive. "It's almost recession-proof," he said.
At NPE2018, Rocheleau rolled out its largest reciprocating-screw machine to blow mold containers for the dairy, industrial and consumer markets. The RS-90 produced gallon sizes in six cavities or smaller items in up to 16 cavities.
The RS-90 is a hybrid machine, using both hydraulics and electric drive technology — a first for Rocheleau. Customers want the best overall solution, Steve Rocheleau said: "It's not like people crave all-electric machines; what they want is energy-efficiency."
The new equipment should open some new markets, he said.