Two factors can characterize the rise in thermoforming’s fortunes in recent years. Where once there was a sharp divide between injection molding and thermoforming operations, now more processors of thin-walled containers are taking advantage of the thermoforming process’s inherent efficiencies in terms of resin usage and the significant increase in throughput achieved by thermoforming lines with inline sheet extruders.
The efficiencies in resin usage result from the greater orientation strength of thermoformed containers, which means less resin can be used to obtain a required compression strength. Inline sheet extrusion means thermoforming units can be continuously fed, rather than employing a lower-volume, two-step process between a sheet’s extrusion and its use in forming.
We’ve asked three thermoforming machine manufacturers—Brown Machine, GN Thermoforming, and OMV—and one thermoformer—ThermoFab—to provide insight into the state of thermoforming, including its technology and market fortunes.
Q: What event or condition is having the biggest effect on your sector of the plastics industry in 2010, and which one do you think will be the most important in 2011?
Robbins: Clearly the world economy. Brown had a strong year in 2009, and 2010 is shaping up to be even better. Although the general economy is down, the food packaging and disposable food packaging markets have remained active and we believe we have had a very positive response to our recent innovations. With that said, all of the other market segments with the exception of medical have been recessed, with some virtually flat. We have seen this particularly in the cut-sheet segment that serves such a wide base of industrial markets.
Romkey: The event with the biggest effect on our sector, food and confectionary, is the pressure being applied to our customers by the large supermarket chains to provide packaging that demonstrates sustainability and carbon-footprint reductions. Our customers need to show that they can redesign packaging and reduce material sheet thicknesses while still providing the strength required for the handling of the products.
Thermoforming machinery manufacturers in turn must provide customers with energy-efficient equipment and innovative features that provide them with the ability to receive the maximum yield of parts for each kilo or pound of sheet converted on their GN thermoformer.
Johansson: OMV is a European company with a large presence in North and South America; the exchange rate between the euro and the U.S. dollar has had, and will have, a great impact on sales of new equipment and molds in the Americas. In addition, the worldwide economy and the speed of recovery will be a significant factor in sales of all capital equipment in 2011.
King: ThermoFab has witnessed firsthand that offshore manufacturing has had one of the most significant effects on the entire plastics industry. More and more clients are now breaking the trend and coming back to their U.S. manufacturers. They are willing to spend a bit more money for a quality product and technical service. They have learned this the hard way—with costly hits on product launches, products that never made it to market when the path chosen was based solely on one qualifying factor: low bid.
The most important condition over the last decade and continuing into 2011 is that the labor rates in the U.S. can’t compete with labor rates overseas due to the regulations that corporate America has to follow. The downturn on U.S. manufacturing has been significant.
Q: What was your company’s top technology development in 2009? What will it be this year? Is there a technology in your sector that processors are overlooking?
Robbins: Brown introduced our new Quad Series Thermoformers, which are the pinnacle of our continuous product line. These are fully equipped machines with a variety of premium features to deliver high-performance capabilities. The heart of this line is a new innovative Quad Series form station that combines continuous thermoforming technology with coining (stamping) technology to produce highly detailed parts at high speed with greater consistency. The Quad Series design can deliver extreme coining force and withstand tremendous holding force with virtually zero platen deflection.
In addition, Brown introduced our next generation of thermoforming controls. A new, fully integrated control system is optimized for visualization, discrete motion, servo motion, temperature control, and machine safety. It is an open-architecture system with user-friendly operation and no proprietary components. At this time we prefer to decline on disclosing our innovation developments for this year. Stay tuned for the K show.
Within the continuous sector our customers are always seeking new technology to push the envelope. On the cut-sheet side, these machines can produce some very impressive small to large and highly detailed vacuum, pressure, and twin-sheet products.
Romkey: GN has been heavily involved in the development of thermoforming equipment to better service our customers with the production of PET packaging (APET, RPET, DPET). These materials are in general more difficult to cut and more demanding on equipment and tooling. GN has developed new equipment and redesigned its tooling with improved capabilities to accommodate the recent and fast-changing market trend towards PET packaging. Our new line of DX thermoformers has increased cutting capabilities, built-in nip unwinding systems, adjustable nip transport system, servodriven toggle system, and advanced diagnostics.
GN Thermoforming is presently in the final development stages of new equipment and innovations to our existing equipment, which we plan to release at K 2010.
Johansson: In 2009, OMV continued to improve its process technology to meet the demand from food and drug packers. The increasing use of fast food takeout containers/drinking cups and lids and the need for more economical, stronger, and higher-quality parts at increasingly lower weights has brought great improvements.
Our in-house proprietary mold technology provides higher speed and maximizes mold utilization with less skeleton scrap for recycling, optimizing the production rate vs. energy cost. In addition, the effectiveness of OMV’s patented built-in rim rolling and automation for deep-draw containers and cups is achieving new products of unparalleled quality and savings.
I feel that many processors are overlooking the importance of source reduction. OMV process technology can help processors by lowering the weight and not losing the properties or strength of the container—ultimately improving the appeal and impact at the same time.
King: A corporate culture that highlights the engineering approach, along with technically advanced staff, kept ThermoFab ahead of the curve. Looking for creative ways to leverage new marketing mediums, ThermoFab launched its Thermoforming Superhero video on YouTube in the spring of 2009. The Superhero was created to provide a fresh, fun explanation of the process of thermoforming plastics. The ThermoFab Superhero was a fun way for us to share our personality, show how we are different, and tie it into an interesting plant tour. The video can be found on You Tube or on the company web site at: www.thermofab.com/thermoforming_superhero_video
We plan to release a second Superhero Video highlighting our processes in late 2010. Companies in our sector are putting R&D efforts on hold for new technologies due to economic pressures. New technology developments will be pushed out for some time as corporations attempt to recover.
Q: Are there particular end markets that are hot now or will be soon for your customers?
Robbins: As commented within the first question, our continuous equipment markets of food packaging, disposable food packaging, and medical have remained active in light of the economic downturn. I would not say that these segments are recession proof, but thermoformed products offer significant advantages in these markets and regardless of the economy, people are still purchasing food and requiring medical services. We have also seen some recovery and recent activity within the horticultural and retail packaging segments.
Romkey: GN equipment is predominantly used in the food/confectionary markets. Generally, these markets do not slow down significantly during recessionary times. As we are coming out of this last recession, we are now seeing an increase in demand as our customers are returning to the growth they were experiencing before the crisis. We anticipate strong growth for thermoforming equipment in developing markets and a rejuvenated demand for new equipment in developed markets as they emerge from the economic slowdown of last year.
Johansson: There are three segments in the market that are “hot” in our opinion: 1) High-quality, lower-weight packaging including IML (inmold labeling) vs. injection molding; 2) growing demand for high-quality, rim-rolled clear PP cups as an alternative to APET and paper cups; and 3) increasing demand for clear, lightweight PP lids and domes. The goal is to use the same material for lids, cups, and containers to meet recycling efforts.
King: Medical-device enclosures will push additional new developments again for Q3 release. The recovery trend is there. The new-product development sector and R&D budgets have been slow and on strict constraints for all industry segments. We’ve seen the computer and medical segments begin their recoveries first with new product development and repeat business wins.
Q: Which breakthroughs or major trends in your segment of the plastics business should processors watch closely?
Robbins: Materials and material characteristics continue to drive product requirements. Currently polypropylene and PET have risen as the dominant materials. These materials require specific considerations within the machine designs to provide the largest processing window to achieve the desired products. Today there is increased emphasis on biodegradable materials, special additives, and a host of others that can affect or shift a multitude of the thermoformed products.
Part consistency and quality are other key factors. The expectation is that all of the parts within the mold shot be of the same consistency and quality 24 hours a day. This is why the Quad Series with virtually zero deflection, machine controls, servo accuracy, and oven performance is so critical.
Automated product handling is another expanding trend. Brown’s line of Servo Trim Presses are designed to interface with either our or third-party product-handling systems.
Finally, there is continued pressure on controlling cost of the products. In fact, this was the topic of our presentation at the Form-Pack 2010 World Thermoformed Packaging Conference. In this presentation we explored six areas where recent thermoforming technology can save the processor money.
Romkey: The buzzwords in the packaging industry are carbon footprint and sustainability. We continue to hear from our customers that they need to run more efficiently and provide products of less weight. Many of our customers are now telling us that they can compete against less-expensive imported trays and that they will continue to expect innovations from their equipment suppliers, which will give them the edge over their competitors. Sheet downgauging is a hot topic with our customers.
Johansson: As mentioned before, I believe that source reduction in packaging and disposable cups is very important, using material with low density and process technology for low-weight parts without sacrificing strength and/or properties. I also believe that IML (thermoforming) will have an increased market share and should be monitored closely. Biodegradable materials and compostable material are still under development. The pending results can have a big impact on future choice of materials.
King: Project engineers should partner with a stable supplier. We are receiving calls daily from project managers and engineers whose current suppliers have closed their doors. They need immediate assistance with a current product line. Engineers and managers are now breaking the trends and looking for manufacturers who have more to offer than just a project quote. They are asking questions such as, “What is available for resources from a particular thermoforming company?” when designing new custom plastic enclosures or new medical devices.
Engineering resources found directly from thermoforming supplier websites are extremely helpful to the product designers. A resources page highlights the many items a designer or engineer needs ASAP when working on a project, such as those on ThermoFab’s website, www.thermofab.com ; click on Resources.
Q: What is your prediction for your industry segment’s growth in 2011? Better than 2010?
Robbins: We anticipate 2011 to be a strong year. As the economy improves, so will the demand for thermoforming equipment. This may be particularly true within the cut-sheet segment. As product demand increases in the construction, RV, appliance, recreation, dunnage, automotive, and other industrial segments, capacity will increase and opportunities for new equipment will be required. As in 2010, for 2011 we continue to see food packaging, disposable food packaging, and medical to remain as active segments. We need to continue to be focused on the market needs and provide innovative solutions to meet those needs. We look forward with great optimism.
Romkey: So far in 2010, we have seen a strong return to growth in our business sector and as long as the economies of the world continue to improve and return to the strength they enjoyed prior to the recession, we do anticipate that 2011 will be a strong year for thermoforming equipment sales.
Johansson: OMV has experienced a good start in 2010 and is looking for a even higher activity level in Q2 and Q3, forecasting growth in shipments in 2011 over 2009 and 2010.
King: Stable companies with valuable resources and personnel will be looked to for assisting product managers and engineers with their new project releases. The predictions for recovery are slow for 2011. In 2011 the plastics industry will continue to tread water as most corporations have in 2010. These economic challenges and trends are highlighted in a recent article where the USBIC opposes continued U.S.-China Dialogue.