Extruder makers step up to supply medical, packaging needs
A critical need for life-saving medical products and life-altering goods for working and schooling at home was met by the plastics industry's extrusion system builders.
The COVID-19 pandemic sent health care systems in a panicked rush to secure ventilator tubing, respirators and isolation gowns. Stockpiles of medical supplies and personal protective equipment seemed to vanish in a bidding frenzy between states.
Medical device manufacturers scrambled to add capacity to extrude tubing and sheet products to meet the demand for products to save the lives of patients and spare the lives of first responders.
Like many machine builders, Dana Hanson, president of Aurora, Ill.-based Processing Technologies International LLC, fielded some frantic calls. The company makes sheet extrusion machines.
"We sold our fully functioning production line straight out of the Technical Development Center for the sake of a customer immediately producing face shields for the medical field," Hanson said in an email.
At Graham Engineering Corp., medical tubing machinery sales were down overall because of the cancellation or postponement of elective surgeries, according to Michael Duff, vice president of sales and service. But there was a period in April when the York, Pa.-based company sped delivery of extruders to produce corrugated tubing, typically medical-grade polyethylene or ethylene vinyl acetate, for single-use ventilator tubing kits.
"We are incredibly proud of our ability to serve the medical tubing market for ventilator tubing during the pandemic's early stages," Duff said in an email. "Other markets that saw growth through this period include takeout food packaging and plastic lumber."
On the home front, many Americans transitioned to working from home, online learning and eating out less to lessen their exposure to the virus. They turned spare bedrooms into offices, redecorated for Zoom meetings, bought more packaged food and upgraded backyards with decks for outdoor entertaining and recreation.
Composite and PVC decking manufacturers had already been enjoying a steady uptick in sales as consumers shifted from wood products to lower-maintenance alternatives. Residential decking demand was about $3.34 billion in 2019.
In July, Principia Consulting in Malvern, Pa., raised its 2020 forecast for decking demand to $3.38 billion — up from $3.36 billion prior to the pandemic.
"The outdoor living trend has been on the upswing for the past number of years and directly contributes to decking demand growth. The trend's popularity has only soared from staying at home and sheltering in place during COVID-19 and is expected to continue as social behavior to stay close to home and staycations become more commonplace," the firm said in an announcement about the change.
2020 also has been a good year for flexible packaging — and a very good year for Hosokawa Alpine American Inc. in Northborough, Mass., after some ups and downs and ups, according to President David Nunes. The company makes blown film extrusion equipment for customers that produce "a myriad of flexible packaging products -- from food packaging to consumer trash bags and everything in between,""Nunes said in a phone interview.
Hosokawa Alpine experienced one of its slowest and then busiest periods in back-to-back quarters this year, Nunes also said.
"In terms of new business, we had strong bookings in the first and second quarters of 2020 for a number of different projects for customers in many industries from small producers to multinationals," he explained. "Then, in the third quarter, things got slow — the slowest we've seen since probably since the slowdown of '09. But the fourth quarter was one of the biggest we've had in bookings and new orders, also since the '08-'09 downturn. We were just flooded with new business in the fourth quarter."
The only lagging end market is industrial and institutional trash bags for schools and universities, offices, restaurants, airports and hotels, said Nunes, who expects 2021 to be a "very good" year.
At Windmoeller & Hoelscher Corp. North America, 2020 has been a record-breaking sales year, according to President Andrew Wheeler, who expects "remarkably strong" sales next year, too. The company manufactures machinery exclusively for the production of flexible packaging and 80 percent of its customer base is in food and medical packaging, which have been in high demand during the pandemic.
Duff isn't taking any of it for granted at Graham, and others echoed his sentiment.
"With COVID's impact on our country and economy, we have been fortunate to serve essential markets to support the COVID response, as well as other markets that have strengthened as a result of the pandemic," Duff said.
The fast-spreading respiratory illness is changing perceptions about some plastics, too, such as straws, utensils and packaging. Hanson said the trend continues to find more sustainable approaches to single-use plastics by introducing biodegradable resins and incorporating post-consumer resin into the application process. However, the benefits of using a product only once also are being acknowledged.
"Ironically, the pandemic created a market demand for safe, disposable food packaging throughout the periods of shutdowns as well as transitions into the new normal," Hanson said. "Alternate forms of packaging may not provide the same level of protection as those represented within our industry."
Volker Nilles, executive vice president of new machines at KraussMaffei Technologies GmbH, agreed.
"The packaging market has been very steady for us, even growing, since the pandemic triggered a high demand for hygienic film and ... the demand for reusable packaging is a slightly increasing," Nilles said in an email.
At Entek Manufacturing LLC in Lebanon, Ore., the supplier of extrusion equipment for natural fiber plastic composites, pelletizing, custom compounding and specialty sheet lines, met 2020 sales goals even though the pandemic delayed a few projects, according to Sales Vice President Linda Campbell.
"We attribute this success to our customers in the packaging, recycling and building industries," Campbell said. "In addition, our pilot plant has continued to be booked with customer trials — both virtual and in-person — throughout 2020. This is typically a sign for us that more business is on the horizon."
Campbell expects strong activity for building products in 2021, as does Paul Godwin, president and CEO of Battenfeld-Cincinnati USA.
"Overall, the project maturation timeline seemed longer in 2020 compared to previous years, but the business level was steady throughout. We do anticipate 2021 growth," Godwin said in an email. "We are anticipating 2021 to be a year of recovery back to a new normal."
So is Campbell, who said, "We are going to operate as if COVID is nonexistent in 2021. We anticipate sales to be even stronger than in 2020."