Despite a weaker economic outlook, the value of plastics machinery shipments of injection molding presses and extruders managed to show year-on-year growth.
First-quarter shipments were slightly lower than the previous quarter, which is typical, but comparable to previous quarters during economic expansions, according to Perc Pineda, chief economist for the Washington-based Plastics Industry Association.
The preliminary estimate for the first quarter of 2023 showed a shipment value of $345.8 million, which is down 20.1 percent from the previous quarter. However, compared with the same period a year ago, the value of shipments increased by 1.6 percent.
Single-screw extruders saw the biggest decline in value at 28.4 percent, followed by a 19.9 percent drop in injection molding shipments from the previous quarter and 14.7 percent decrease for twin-screw extruders.
However, compared with shipments in the prior year, single-screw and twin-screw extruders increased by 11.4 percent and 94.9 percent, respectively. Injection molding shipments still saw a 2.7 percent decline.
"The outright decline in the year-over-year shipments value of injection molding machinery is troubling. That is the biggest machinery segment, and it is a much better indicator of the real underlying trend," Bill Wood, Plastics News economics editor and founder of Mountaintop Economics & Research Inc., said in an email.
The figures, which were compiled by the trade group's Committee on Equipment Statistics (CES), show primary machinery shipments were flat to down for a third consecutive quarter.
"There have been small, year-over-year increases in those three quarters, but all likely due to the increased price of machinery and not demand growth," Wood said.
The CES also conducts a quarterly survey to gather perspectives about market conditions and expectations from plastics machinery suppliers.
The survey showed a decrease in the percentage of respondents expecting market conditions to remain unchanged or improve in the next quarter, dropping from 35 percent to 33 percent.
The longer-range view isn't better. The percentage of respondents expecting unchanged or improved conditions in the next 12 months decreased from 45 percent to 38 percent.
U.S. plastics machinery exports amounted to $229.3 million in the first quarter. Mexico and Canada were the top export markets again. The combined exports to these countries totaled $115.6 million and accounted for 50.4 percent of U.S. plastics machinery exports.
On the other hand, imports increased by 6.7 percent to $535.7 million in the first quarter. As a result, the U.S. plastics machinery trade deficit reached $306.4 million.
"Despite the U.S. economy displaying resilience and robust household sector spending due to a strong labor market, the implementation of contractionary monetary policy in March 2022 is beginning to impact the financial market and will have broader implications for the manufacturing sector, including the plastics industry," Pineda said.
The plastics association economist also said current low unemployment rates in the plastic and rubber products manufacturing markets can't be sustained indefinitely and the future trajectory of plastics equipment shipments will continue to depend on U.S. macroeconomic conditions.
Wood put it this way: "The near-term trend looks weaker, but nothing dire ... yet."