Strong sales of injection molding machines continued into 2021 with solid demand again from the medical and home goods markets as well as businesses bringing back production from overseas — and it's almost all in response to the pandemic.
If the months of November and December come in at the same rate as the rest of 2021, press builders expect U.S. sales to reach 5,000 units, an increase of 25 percent from the 4,000 presses sold last year.
Still, 2021 has its challenges and they will stick around for the foreseeable future. The global supply chains remain stressed, hiring signs are everywhere, inflation is being felt, transportation can be scarce and costly, and COVID-19 keeps evolving.
The plastics industry keeps responding, ramping up production for personal protective equipment, respirators, ventilators, testing pipettes and components for vaccines. The next phase: offering all adults boosters ahead of a possible winter surge in cases and a new variant called omicron.
The medical market has gone from strong to stable but remains very healthy, according to Arburg Inc. President Friedrich Kanz.
"A lot of the products that were needed in order to fight COVID are plastic products, produced on plastic injection molding machines. And that is a matter of fact and therefore our industry is really important to the entire medical market. And I think that will remain the case even if the COVID situation is brought under control," Kanz said.
Rocky Hill, Conn.-based Arburg achieved record sales in 2020 and Kanz expects a repeat in 2021.
So does Len Hampton, the national sales manager at Plustech Inc., in Elk Grove, Ill., which is the North American base of Sodick Co. Ltd.'s injection molding machinery division. Sodick serves manufacturers of high precision, tight tolerance, micromolded medical products.
"We've seen a surge in orders in the medical device market, especially on the diagnostic side due to the pandemic. ... Machine demand in the midsize range of 100-200 tons for us has gone through the roof," Hampton said, adding orders are also strong in the appliance and industrial markets.
Absolute Haitian is on pace to ship more than 50,000 machines globally this year with business up about 20 percent from last year for the U.S. and Canada, according to Glenn Frohring, an owner of the Worcester, Mass.-based company that sells injection molding presses made in China by Haitian Plastics Machinery Ltd.
Many Absolute Haitian press buyers manufacture consumer products and household goods like storage bins and shop vac parts that have remained in big demand with much of the U.S. workforce still working from home.
"At the end of three quarters, our unit sales were at a level that exceeds all of last year," Frohring said, noting that most machine makers are working to rebuild their stock. "We have a huge facility in South Carolina. Our goal is to have 150 machines in inventory at any given point in time."
Engel North America in York, Pa., has a similar plan. The company has 100 injection molding machines in its stock pipeline, President Paul Caprio said.
"We've never done that before here," he added. "That's a big commitment to a part of the market where all we know is delivery is the primary reason for their purchase. If you have a machine in stock, you can get ahead of the incumbent."
Hillenbrand Inc. officials said the company has a strong backlog and solid demand trends, but they foresee supply chain disruption and labor shortages to be a headwind throughout the year.
The Batesville, Ind.-based company, which includes plastics machinery manufacturer Milacron, lost some opportunities to the strained supply chain — at least for now.
"We would say roughly about $50 million is what we believe is probably pushing into the next year," Chief Financial Officer Kristina Cerniglia said in a Nov. 18 conference call about yearly results.
In 2021, Hillenbrand sales increased 13 percent to $2.8 billion.
A lot of the machine builders serving injection molders saw double-digit sales growth.
Annual sales are up about 60 percent at Torrington, Conn.-based CH America, which builds machines for manufacturers of tote bins, plastic pallets, crates, golf carts and swimming pool equipment along with automotive market.
"We are a young company, so this type of performance will get more difficult as we get larger, but we are very happy with the growth," said Ken Heyse, president and managing director at Plastics One and CH America, which sells Chen Hsong presses.
At Krauss-Maffei Corp. in Florence, Ky., growth was steady and steep thanks to machine sales to the logistics, packaging and medical markets. The company is up nearly 50 percent over calendar year 2020, said Brian Bishop, vice president of new machine sales.
At LS Mtron Injection Molding Machine USA in Norcross, Ga., Business Director Peter Gardner said 2021 unit sales and shipments are up more than 50 percent from 2020, with more than 200 presses going to North America to produce appliances, electronics and large home goods.
"Items previously being made overseas are strongly shifting towards the USA, especially larger items, which would carry a large burden of shipping cost increases, not to mention delays caused by the global shipping issues," Gardner said.
As a result, two-platen machines from 550-3,600 tons will capture more than 20 percent of the U.S. market share for 2021 for housewares, such as storage containers, Gardner added.
At Wittmann Battenfeld Inc., in Torrington, Conn., President David Preusse said sales are good but also constrained by supply chain problems.
"Our new orders rate ramped up 40 percent in 2021 over 2020, while parts and labor shortages limited our revenue growth to 15 percent," Preusse said.
At Yizumi-HPM Corp. in Iberia, Ohio, General Manager Jon Martin is feeling the pinch, too.
"We have seen steadily increasing interest across our full product range, resulting in higher year-over-year sales and an increasing order board," he said. "A key challenge is meeting lead time expectations, which is being impacted by global supply chain constraints."
At Nissei America Inc. in San Antonio, sales were up 8 percent on a unit basis and 20 percent on a dollar basis. Sales at Boy Machines Inc. in Exton, Pa., were up about 5 percent compared with 2020.
Nissei America, a U.S. sales subsidiary of Japan-based Nissei Plastic Industrial Co. Ltd., has relocated from California to San Antonio and combined there with its production subsidiary Nissei Plastic Machinery America.
Officials at New York-based Japan Steel Works America Inc. said they saw unprecedented growth during the first half of 2021, then sales activity normalized.