After excellent growth of almost 7% during the nineties, North American industrial blow molding business has slowed down since early 2000. The pace of growth in the regional economy had decelerated, and several critical markets for industrial blow molders had been adversely affected. Automotive industry production had plateaued, the house ware industry suffered from polymer pricing spikes and changes in product retailing, and the toy industry continues to experience stiff foreign competition, particularly from China. Industrial blow molding grew only by 3% over the period 2000-2005. During this period when resin prices soared, the average unit value of output from industrial blow molders declined by 1.5%. This contrary product pricing pattern is evident across most major markets segments like automotive products, industrial packaging, and several other major and minor markets. Thus, whereas the collective value of the business grew, for many it turned out to be a business of low profit.
The level of industry concentration has always been high in industrial blow molding, and events of the past few years have raised this measure even higher. In part, this reflects normal market forces with companies entering and exiting the business. The profit margin squeeze induced several small to mid-sized players to either seek partners or simply exit the business. The high level of industry concentration also reflects evolving federal and state mandates aimed at limiting hydrocarbon emissions from fuel tanks and containers, a critical market for blow molders. Complying with these mandates requires either converting to costly high-barrier resins in a monolayer structure or investing in costly co-extrusion machinery and molds to deliver multilayer units. Thus, the portable fuel container business by majority players, and the multilayer non-automotive fuel tank business by remaining players now dominate the blow molded automotive part supply chain. Other critical industrial blow molding markets such as industrial packaging have undergone corporate consolidation.
Mastiogale's blow molding market study shows modest growth for industrial products. At around 1.77bln lb, they represented 15% of U.S. blow molded resin consumption in 2005. With an average annual growth rate (AAGR) of 3.4%, industrial (non-container) blow molding is expected reach 1.95bln lb in 2008. The largest sectors are automotive (23% of the total), lawn and garden (20%), and fuel tanks (18%). Others are recreation and leisure, toys, appliances, furniture, housewares, and highway safety barrels.
HDPE accounted for nearly 1.3bln lb, or 83% of this market in 2005. Polypropylene was the second largest material. With 2006 passing the halfway mark, some industry analysts predict growth around 3.4% for the year. On the downside, processors predict that high resin prices will lead to the failure of 5-10% of U.S. industrial blow molders in the next few years, and will force many survivors to rely on imported resins from Pacific Rim countries.
Automotive components other than fuel tanks are growing 4.3% pa from 400.9mln lb in 2005 to 456mln lb in 2008. Blow molded lawn and garden products reached 362mln lb in 2005. These products are forecasted to increase 5.8% pa to hit 430mln lb in 2008. Blow molded automotive fuel tanks ranked third in market size at 321mln lb in 2005. Annual growth is expected to be 3.3%, reaching 353.8mln lb in 2008. However, this depends on the ability of fuel-tank makers to comply with strict new hydrocarbon emission standards spearheaded by California and later adopted by a few Northeastern states. One concern is that these environmental regulations are reversing some of the progress from metal to plastic fuel tanks. Blow molded recreation and leisure products will grow at a moderate rate of 3.6% pa. They consumed 287.4mln lb in 2005 and are expected to reach 320mln lb by 2008. Makers of small fuel tanks for boats, lawn/garden products, and recreational vehicles are preparing for new hydrocarbon emissions standards from the U.S. EPA and California. Under these guidelines, new fuel tanks must be in production by 2007.
The market for blow molded toys consumed 165.6mln lb in 2005, but it has an AAGR of -4.9%, so demand is expected to decline to 142mln lb by 2008. Retailers are giving less space to blow molded toys and more to video and computer games. Increased toy imports and outsourcing to China also play a part in this decline.
Blow molded appliance parts are a small segment, only 78mln lb in 2005, but one of the healthier ones with a predicted AAGR of 4.3%. Plastic is gaining a larger presence in appliances for both aesthetic and structural parts and should reach 88.5mln lb in 2008 Blow molded housewares will continue to be plagued by imports and high domestic material costs, leading to a predicted AAGR of only 2.5%. This segment consumed 96.5mln lb and will grow to 104mln lb by 2008. Blow molded furniture producers expect an AAGR of 2.4%, which will push consumption from 50.2mln lb in 2005 to 54mln lb by 2008.
Highway safety barrels are a very small and mature market that will remain small over the next several years. In 2005 they represented 8.3mln lb; with an AAGR of only 0.4%, they will reach only 8.4mln lb by 2008. Some safety-barrel suppliers attribute this slow growth to other road-barrier products replacing the barrel design.
Challenges remain for the North American blow molders. Blow molders confront increased competition from alternative plastics processors, and they also confront competition from imports as many of their customers relocate manufacturing operations offshore. Industrial blow molders not only need to regain their former growth dynamic; they need to invest in modern machinery and automation equipment to enhance their productivity and inter-process competitive position.