Machine builders meet pressing needs for plastic in 2020

Injection press sales took off in 2020, helping cure what ails the United States as the COVID-19 pandemic increased demand for everything from respirators, ventilators and face masks to disinfection wipes containers, home office furnishings and sourdough bread machines.

The number of injection molding machines sold this year to produce many of those medical and other products will end up right around the 4,000-unit benchmark, according to plastics industry executives.

That’s up from about 3,300 presses sold in 2019, but down compared with sales of roughly 4,250 units annually from 2015 through 2018.

Based on current numbers, Arburg Inc. President Friedrich Kanz expects at least 4,000 machines will have been sold to plastics processors in 2020.

“It may be higher. … I consider that a safe prediction,” Kanz said in an email, calling the year’s result interesting.

“In such a difficult or strange year, for us to have such high numbers is really amazing,” Kanz said. “[It] is really an indication of how important plastics products are to our society and in the medical field when faced with a crisis like COVID-19.”

Kanz said he hopes press sale numbers will be similar in 2021, “but hope is not a strategy,” he added.

“The real question is how long this investment in medical will continue. It is difficult to say. If medical stays strong and automotive comes back, I think 3,500 molding machines in 2021 would be a good number.”

After a good — and for some, even strong — start to 2020, many machine builders felt the economy crash as the virus spread at an alarming rate in the second quarter.

With the declaration of the pandemic on March 11 came state lockdowns, distinctions of essential and nonessential businesses, and new safety protocols to follow. Americans were dying by the thousands and millions were laid off.

The U.S. economy shed 20.5 million jobs in April. The unemployment rate of 14.7 percent for the month was the highest since the end of the Great Depression.

“The second quarter was the most difficult to run a business,” Mark Sankovitch, CEO of Engel North America since 2009, said in a phone interview. “Orders were still coming in but there was a big impact on the after-sales support side. We couldn’t go in to plants that were shut down so our service organization pretty much came to a screeching halt.

“That second quarter, my competitors and customers all struggled,” Sankovitch said. “When you do a hard stop to the economy, it’s a shock.”

Many machine builders had to shake it off quickly. They found themselves at the forefront of meeting demand for diagnostic equipment, syringes, testing equipment and personal protective equipment for the medical market.

Batesville, Ind.-based Hillenbrand Inc., which includes plastics machinery manufacturer Milacron, reported record sales of $694 million for the fourth quarter, an increase of 43 percent over the prior year, driven primarily by the Milacron acquisition and its burial casket business called Batesville.

For its fiscal 2020 year, Hillenbrand posted record sales of $2.52 billion, an increase of 39 percent over the prior year, again thanks to Milacron, which is now part of Hillenbrand’s Molding Technology Solutions unit.

“With a Milacron acquisition we added industry-leading and complimentary hot runner and injection molding product lines in the Hillenbrand portfolio, further strengthening our customer offering, increasing our global scale and enhancing our capabilities across the entire plastics value chain, from base resin production all the way through recycling,” President and CEO Joe Raver said during a Nov. 11 quarterly call.

He expects Molding Technology Solutions’ first-quarter sales will grow modestly year over year in a range of about 2-5 percent, primarily driven by sales growth for hot runners.

“Recent order trends for injection molding equipment have been positive, including sequential order improvement broadly across key end markets in geographic regions, leading to the best order levels and backlog in the product line in over two years,” Raver said.

The company says the order backlog of $243 million increased 54 percent year over year for injection presses, extruders and hot runners.