January 2023 started strong for some blow molding machine builders, including R&B Plastics Machinery LLC in Saline, Mich., which had a decent backlog from the end of the previous year.
"Our business in general is up as we execute a strategy laid out a couple years ago," said Fred Piercy, president and general manager of R&B. "We've been pretty strong all year in the blow molding segment and our extrusion markets."
The company continues to invest in technology related to its all-electric extrusion blow molding shuttles, which are designed for continual use and durability, and it has made some decent inroads on supplying new accumulator heads to the market for technical parts and large containers.
At Bekum America Corp. in Williamston, Mich., Gary Carr, vice president of sales, said 2023 will conclude "as a reasonable business year but definitely slower than seen in the pandemic period."
Carr added: "2023 saw the blow molding industry adjust to post-pandemic business levels, as did Bekum."
A lot of blow molding machine builders may be nodding in agreement, in part because the market for general containers dried up following the buildup of capacity for hand sanitizers and disinfecting wipes during the pandemic.
"There's a significant amount of container blow molding capacity in North America," Piercy said. "I think that will be the case for a while. There was pandemic capacity added, and there's pressure on customers — the bigger CPG [consumer packaged goods] companies — to use less plastic or an alternative away from plastic. This has created more capacity."
The excess of consumer-related blow molding capacity added during the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to level out next year.
"We see that capacity being more fully utilized in the second half of 2024, requiring a return to normal machinery procurement patterns," said Manuel Heusinger, vice president of sales and service Americas at Kautex Machines Inc., based in Flemington, N.J.
Still, the foreseeable future has other challenges, he added.
"Many projects in our target (and premium) segments continue being postponed due to economic uncertainties forcing us on a group level to rightsize our production facility in Germany, adjusting it new market conditions," Heusinger said.
The Bonn, Germany-based operations of parent company Kautex Maschinenbau GmbH are insolvent due to what the company calls "a multitude of exogenous factors." Company officials are looking for new investors.
On the bright side, Heusinger said, "We continue having strong focus on the industrial packaging segment and see continued demand in more sustainable packaging solutions, for example, through lightweighting based on new or improved product designs and conversion ... from metal to plastics. For many years now we are in prototyping and testing phases with selected partners for hydrogen liner applications with the expectation of growth in future mobility."
Carr said Bekum officials are seeing "a modest trend" toward companies looking to manufacture their own bottles.
"Supply chain challenges during the pandemic have resulted in companies wanting to control their own packaging needs and also enjoy freight and manufacturing cost savings," Carr said.
Another opportunity is multilayer large containers.
"We're seeing more specialized multilayer industrial applications for regrind and post-consumer capabilities to hit sustainability and recycling goals," Piercy said. "These are multilayer in the 4- to 6-gallon range for retail and industrial applications."