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Surge in demand keeping extruder manufacturers busy

Visits last week to some of the leading European manufacturers of extrusion machinery made clear this segment of the plastics industry has bounced back strongly from the 2009/2010 recession. Time on these companies' in-house lines for processor's trial runs is booked for most of the year, and new halls for machinery assembly are being built at W&H and SML.

In the feast-or-famine world of plastics machinery manufacturing, it's time to feast, with the biggest concern at most companies that they will lose orders if they cannot reduce their lead times. There are plenty of concerns as to whether the current demand is sustainable, but these talks with a number of leaders at industry-leading manufacturers made clear these companies are planning for the long term.

With a concrete and steel effort to put a dent in lead times, a massive new assembly hall under construction is the first thing a visitor sees as he drives towards Windmöller & Hölscher (Lengerich, Germany). "We're running at full speed," said Elisabeth Braumann, public relations manager at the manufacturer of blown and cast film equipment and film printing machinery. The new hall will be useful to help meet demand for equipment including the company's Filmex cast extrusion equipment, which has helped it grab a good slice of the business in that market, she said.

In Lenzing, Austria, cast film extruder line manufacturer SML is busy adding its own new assembly hall to its large facility to help it meet growing demand, said Susanne Kohlberger, the company's marketing manager. A tour of the plant revealed an almost anthill-like level of activity, and Kohlberger said that orders at and since the K show have been very strong. The company was one of the few that were able to coast through the 2009/10 recession with few scars to show for it. At that trade show last fall the company introduced its EcoCompact stretch film line, a space-saving eye-catcher.

Just shy of two hours south of W&H is its leading competitor, Reifenhäuser. The company is busy in 2011 celebrating both its 100-year anniversary as well as "the strongest year in our history," said Ulrich Reifenhäuser, managing partner at the family-owned manufacturer. The company's financial year runs from July 1-June 30. "During the crisis years we reorganized the business so that each business unit is self-sufficient," he explained, and the strategy is paying off, as is the company's decision not to layoff workers in the recession but instead make use of the German government's support of companies that kept workers on payroll but at fewer hours.

In Reifenhäuser's near-new in-house technical facility, the company is installing one of the five-layer polyethylene film lines similar to the one it ran during last fall's K show, explained Armin Holighaus, senior application engineer at the company. Business at and following the K show was very strong, said Ulrich Reifenhäuser, even such that "the company has never seen so much new business in such a short period of time." One of the Reifenhäuser Group companies, Reiloy, also is benefiting greatly from the renewed demand for injection molding machines (as well as extruders); Reiloy is the world's market leader for manufacture of plasticizing screws and barrels. 

Unicor aiming for rapid growth
W&H and Reifenhäuser realize most of their sales to processors in the plastics packaging world, but corrugator manufacturer Unicor (Hassfurt, Germany) depends on demand in the building and construction market for much of its revenue, rounded out by significant sales into the automotive, medical, and other markets. A management buyout in 2005 separated the company from its previous owner, Finnish pipe processor Uponor, and business improved, with the company's fiscal 2008 its best year ever.

The following two business years were much more difficult but here again, employee layoffs to control outlays were not used, said Volker Sprenger, Unicor's head of sales and marketing. For 2011 sales are expected to rebound to about €25 million, and the company's leadership has a target of €40 million in sales by 2013, with almost all of that export. In 2009 Unicor acquired the intellectual property and customer list of one of its longtime competitors, Fränkische, and has developed corrugating equipment that brings together the best of both brands, said Sprenger. Unicor also took over sales of spare parts and service for Fränkische equipment in the field. A tour of Unicor's plant and look at its loading dock made clear the employees are keeping very busy.     

Sprenger said the company used the recession to conduct an in-depth market study and customer survey to identify not only the company's own strengths and weaknesses, but also to get a picture for where demand will increase, and for which applications. Large (diameters of one meter and higher) pipe extrusion and the corrugation of these is one significant growth industry, he said. Unicor's technology for direct water cooling of its forming molds, rather than air cooling, puts it in good position to win this large pipe business, he added.

Officials at Weber, the Kronach, Germany-based manufacturer of extruders for pipe and profile, said they too are seeing a solid rebound following the tough 2009/2010. Weber's sales in Russia have taken off, said Ursula Roßmann, sales manager, as have sales in Poland and other countries in Eastern Europe. "We see the pipe sector doing especially well, better even than the profile business," she added. —Matt Defosse

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