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The Wide World of Plastics at NPE2024

The largest plastics trade show in the Americas came roaring back after a six-year gap. The industry’s resilience and innovative spirit, as well as its pain points, were on vivid display.

Norbert Sparrow

May 15, 2024

7 Min Read
crowd on NPE show floor seen from above
Image courtesy of Oscar & Associates

At a Glance

  • Many makers of plastics processing equipment are shifting production away from their home base.
  • Skilled labor shortage a hot topic at press conferences.
  • Many sectors beyond packaging are embracing the circular economy.

More than a million square feet of sold-out exhibition space and well over 50,000 attendees — by any measure, NPE2024 in Orlando, FL, from May 6 to 10 was a smashing success. The largest plastics trade show in the Americas is held every three years, but organizers at the Plastics Industry Association had to cancel the event in 2021— COVID oblige — creating a six-year gap. Consequently, pent-up enthusiasm for the event was off the charts. Those expectations were soundly met.

I can say anecdotally that I did not run across a single grumpy exhibitor, which is exceedingly rare in my experience. No matter how well a trade show meets or even exceeds expectations, there always seems to be a chorus of “yeah, buts” to sour the mood. I couldn’t find a soloist to pick up that refrain at NPE2024.

So, what were the takeaways from the show? Here are some of mine, along with observations from Perc Pineda, PhD, chief economist at the Plastics Industry Association, and Emily Friedman, an editor covering the US plastics recycling space at ICIS, a business intelligence organization for the energy, chemical, and fertilizer industries.

Geographical shifts in the machinery space.

It’s a rough time for most makers of plastics processing equipment, many of whom are adjusting by shifting production away from their home base.

Related:LS Mtron Presses Ahead in North America

Wittmann is moving some production out of Austria to its factories in Poland and Hungary as well as, strikingly, Turkey. Wittmann Group President Michael Wittmann told reporters during a press conference at the show that inflation, which is pushing labor costs higher in Austria to keep pace, and regulatory overreach in the European Union has led the company to look at locations “outside of Europe” but that are close enough to its European customers to ship goods by truck. Turkey checks those boxes. Wittmann currently has a temporary facility there but it is actively looking for a larger space to purchase.

Engel, also based in Austria with US headquarters in York, PA, has set its sights on Mexico, where it is building a facility in Queretaro on a 70,000-square-meter (753,474-square-foot) lot. It is investing approximately $32 million in the project. Engel Americas President Vanessa Malena said that Engel will move production into a rental space in June while the new facility — the company’s 10th — is being built.

Also betting on Mexico is Absolute Haitian, which said that the first Mars series injection molding machine is being shipped from its Guadalajara plant to a US customer. The 27,000-square-foot facility of the China-based company was officially inaugurated in June 2023 at an approximate cost of $50 million. Building the machines in Mexico shortens delivery times to the United States and avoids supply chain snafus, of course, but, perhaps more importantly, exempts the products from the 25% tariff placed on imported Chinese machinery.

Related:NPE's Origin Story: Promoting and Defending Plastics

Absolute Haitian initially will import servo-hydraulic Mars series 596-ton and smaller presses to the United States. By the end of the year, injection molding machines up to 1,124 tons also will ship from Mexico.

In related efforts to be “close to customers” in particular regions — an ongoing trend among many companies exhibiting at NPE — Absolute Haitian is building a 250,000-square-meter (62-acre) facility in Serbia, which will go into operation by next year, and expanding its footprint in Japan.

One of the most dramatic shifts in the injection molding machine space was announced ahead of NPE. Arburg, which has always taken great pride in exclusively manufacturing its equipment in Lossburg, Germany, announced in March that it will begin building presses at its plant in China and is looking at making a similar move in the United States.

Tackling the skilled labor shortage.

Many companies holding press conferences at NPE noted the difficulty they are having finding personnel to replace the boomers who are retiring and taking their deep institutional knowledge with them. As we reported last month, the growth of US manufacturing will create more than three million new jobs between now and 2033, and as many as half of those positions may remain unfilled, according to a report from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute.

Austrian machine maker Engel, for one, stressed how it is meeting this challenge. Vanessa Malena, president of Engel America, touted the company’s apprenticeship program. “Apprenticeships are sorely lacking in the United States,” she noted, and the mostly self-funded program that Engel has launched in North America has been hugely successful.

The fully paid apprenticeship initiative is certified and registered in Pennsylvania and federally recognized, according to Engel.

More than 6,000 people have applied for the program, which is quite rigorous, lasting four years with a combination of on-the-job and classroom-based instruction. Graduates will be offered a full-time job at Engel as well as nationally recognized journeyman certification.

While numerous positions remain unfilled despite a 1.9% unemployment rate in plastics and rubber products manufacturing as of March, Perc Pineda did see a silver lining in NPE attendance. “The notable presence of first-time attendees at NPE2024 was heartening, suggesting an increase of interest not only in the trade show but in the plastics industry overall,” Pineda told PlasticsToday.

More broadly, Pineda was struck by how vividly the show floor brought forth the plastics conversion sector’s enthusiastic embrace of new technologies. “The inclusion of educational programs at NPE2024 covering AI in both English and Spanish complemented the industry's forward-thinking nature, not to mention the technology zones at the show.”

In his comments to PlasticsToday, Pineda also reiterated what he said in the closing remarks of his press briefing at the event: “Despite criticisms, we mustn't allow anyone to overshadow the innovative spirit within our industry. Plastics remain an indispensable part of our future – and the industry is here to stay.”

Sustainability on steroids.

For several years now, it’s inconceivable for a plastics industry trade show not to put sustainability front and center. NPE2024 was no exception, with a Sustainability Hub and multiple programs developed by show organizers to highlight industry’s embrace of circularity. Exhibitors were equally on message, in some cases making claims that flirted with greenwashing, but maybe that’s just me.

Sustainability was top of mind for ICIS Senior Editor Friedman, who led a presentation at NPE on May 7. She was struck by the embrace of sustainability in sectors other than packaging on the show floor.

“Though the packaging sector has long been investigating and investing in circular solutions like recycled plastic, other industries such as automotive and durable goods are now starting the conversation and [enacting] sourcing strategies around sustainable materials. Soon, recycled plastics markets could see a wider demand pull beyond consumer goods packaging, which could bring some demand stability to grades such as mixed colored recycled resins,” Friedman told PlasticsToday.

Friedman also noted, however, that demand for recycled plastic resin content is coming up against the extremely narrow specifications often set forth by packaging converters and brands. This is “significantly limiting the potential supply,” she commented. “Should companies wish to procure or incorporate greater percentages of recycled content, they will need to adapt to the types of recycled resins that are more broadly available and accept the differences in performance or properties.”

In other terms, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.

Looking ahead.

With NPE behind us and the next gathering not scheduled until 2027, what now? Well, there are several admittedly smaller events in the United States and Canada this year, with Plastec South just around the corner in Charlotte, NC; Plastec Minneapolis in October; and EXPOPLAST Montréal in November. (Full disclosure: These events are organized by Informa Markets – Engineering, which also produces PlasticsToday.) Farther afield, the beloved Fakuma returns to Friedrichshafen, Germany, in October. And then there’s the massive K show in Düsseldorf, Germany — which rivals NPE in scope and size — to look forward to next year.

To borrow a phrase from Pineda, plastics industry trade shows — large and small — are here to stay. See you there!

About the Author(s)

Norbert Sparrow

Editor in chief of PlasticsToday since 2015, Norbert Sparrow has more than 30 years of editorial experience in business-to-business media. He studied journalism at the Centre Universitaire d'Etudes du Journalisme in Strasbourg, France, where he earned a master's degree.


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