Industry Corner: Plastics Processing Machinery

By Gross, Andrew; Jovan, Wendy | Business Economics, April 1998 | Go to article overview

Industry Corner: Plastics Processing Machinery

Gross, Andrew, Jovan, Wendy, Business Economics

In the 1967 film classic, "The Graduate," an ambitious young man is given a one-word advice for success in the business world: plastics. It turned out to be good advice. Plastics are the first new family of materials in the past 3000 years; they compete against the far older families of paper, metals, ceramics, and wood. Plastics first came on the scene a hundred years ago, when cellulose nitrate was substituted for ivory in billiard balls; the next application was photographic film. Plastics got their big boost during World War II when polyethylene was developed as insulation for radar cable. Total U.S. shipments of all plastic materials then rose rapidly from 2.2 billion pounds in 1950 to 14.5 billion in 1967, to 42 billion in 1983. Of the 1996 total of 76 billion, polyethylene held 33 percent, polypropylene 14 percent, polyvinyl chloride 14 percent, thermosets 13 percent, and all others 26 percent.

Clearly, plastics made major inroads on the material scene. Crude oil and natural gas yield "feedstocks" or petrochemicals: ethylene, benzene, propylene, etc. These more simple chemicals, called monomers, are then polymerized into plastic resins or polymers (see the list in previous paragraph). Such resins in granule, powder, or pellet form are ready to be processed into two families of plastics: thermoplastics (which can be remelted or reshaped) or thermosets (which cannot be transformed). The formation of such plastic materials occurs on processing machines.


After paying at the checkout counter of the supermarket, comes the question: What will it be - paper or plastic bag? (A few, environmentally conscious customers pass on both, just grabbing their groceries or bagging them in linen bags.) Will bottle caps and toy cars be made of metal or plastic? Will beverage bottles be made of glass or plastic? What about siding - will it be vinyl or aluminum? Out of such decisions, multiplied many-fold, the future of plastics and hence plastics processing machinery will unfold. The most visible application of plastics is in packaging; but plastics have made major inroads in consumer durables, construction, industrial goods, medical equipment, and motor vehicles. Our research indicates that plastic materials should continue to hold their share, or even increase it, against competing materials in most applications, based on such aspects as machinability, durability, cost effectiveness, and even environmental considerations (because many plastic materials can now be recycled).

Shipments of plastics should rise at 4 percent per year in the United States during the next five years; world demand is expected to surpass 150 million metric tons by 2002. The demand for plastics processing machinery can be readily traced to the demand for plastic materials. But makers of such machinery clearly need to be concerned with the specific end-uses or applications of plastic materials, not just how they are formed and shaped but into what.

Machines designed for forming plastic film differ from those designed to make small toys or large containers. In short, makers of machinery must follow the key dictum of progressive industrial marketers: You must know not only your customer, but your customer's customer!

The domestic plastics industry faces increasing competition from overseas producers, some with low-wage labor, others with innovative products. Thus, U.S. plastics processors, whether they make film, bottles, or complex shapes, insist on sophisticated machinery with time-saving, cost-reducing, and less labor-intensive features. Machinery makers are responding to such requirements. As a general rule, a new model has an output double that of a five-year-old machine. Possibly the most significant development is modularity, which allows for retooling and quick switchovers. In short, U.S. makers of plastics processing machinery expect to remain competitive and innovative, especially in medium and large size models. …

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