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Editorial: Whither the general purpose molding machine?

Jeff Sloan

It was with some trepidation that the plastics industry approached NPE in Chicago in June. The slug-like economy, a slow recovery, SARS, war and occupation in Iraq, and the perpetual threat of terrorism make for much uncertainty. The show could have come off as a symbol of the predominant pessimism, or it could signal a return to growth.

As has been widely reported, attendance at NPE was considerably smaller than the 2000 version. However, on the show floor, optimism reigned. The message from exhibitors was consistent: Attendance is down, but those who showed up came with wallets wide open. It’s the quality over quantity argument that is often trotted out at shows; this year it appears to have some merit.

Aside from the obvious attendance theme, there were other undercurrents running through the show. One in particular caught my eye and is worth mentioning. At three different press conferences hosted by injection molding machinery suppliers, I heard the same message from sales and marketing types explaining their company’s strategy: There is no growth or profit in the sale of general purpose injection molding machines into the U.S. market; specialty and niche machinery (insert, multimaterial, gas assist, and so forth) is where the action is.

On its face, there’s nothing particularly stunning about this assertion. As IMM has often reported over the last few years, the U.S. molding industry has become increasingly specialized and niche-oriented. Shoot-and-ship work is harder to come by, find, and keep in the U.S. So, it stands to reason that machinery suppliers might detect the same trend in their sales analysis.

However, this is the first time we’ve heard machinery suppliers acknowledge that the domestic GP machine market is drying up. That’s not to say that you can’t buy a general purpose machine in the U.S., but clearly specialization is where suppliers are targeting their marketing efforts.

NPE 2003 certainly bore this out. Just as molders and moldmakers were more selective about who attended the show, in these lean times suppliers were obviously much more selective about the machinery they brought. The number and visibility of specialty machines at the show were dramatic, and spoke to the suppliers’ emphasis on niche opportunities and applications.

One has to wonder, however, where this trend will lead. If the economy recovers, will the general purpose machine recover in the U.S. as well? Or will the exodus of shoot-and-ship work to developing nations continue to take the GP machine away, even as the molding economy stabilizes in the U.S.? I’m curious to know what you think.

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