Fecken Kirfel's Pinckers said business started picking up later in the year.
"Companies did start buying mattress and foam cutting machinery toward the end of the year," he said. "Our customers were quite busy from June but were not confident, and waited for the situation to stabilize before investing in new equipment. Business was very slow until September or October, then in October/November it picked up wonderfully. We were able to partly compensate for earlier in the year in the last two months."
The U.S. was very strong, he added, and Mexico and Europe were the regions where the business was the strongest.
"Asia was OK, but Africa, South America and the Middle East were very slow," he said. "These are not big markets, but were slower than usual."
Hennecke's Trippler agreed North America was a good region in 2020.
"Q4 was fantastic, and a lot of customers decided to place orders," he said. "We saw strong demand in North America and China. Europe was not really investing in 2020."
Pozzi said Saip received orders in China, the U.S. and the Baltic states.
"We were not expecting orders from the U.S. at the level we received them," he said. "Our customers stayed close to us. There was growth in building insulation."
For example, they won an order from a PU insulation company in China.
"This was a new order for a new application we have been working on for a couple of years," he said. "It is a continuous line for a new polyurethane application. It is very good for us."
In North America, he added, sales have been keeping a good pace for several years.
"We are currently defining the location of a new facility there," he said. "For the time being, it will be a location offering after-sales service, spare parts and technical service."
StateMix makes machines for the cast polyurethane industry, including vortex mixing machines, automated dispensing machines, and ancillary equipment. Viterra said his company's traditional markets in the oil pipeline sector had suffered in 2020, but other surprising areas opened up.
"We have picked up customers, for example, that make sports equipment, and 2020 was a record year for them," he said. "Their customers seemed to have had lot of free time in 2020, and are investing more in their products. A couple of the relationships we developed in 2020 in that industry have continued, and they have come back in 2021."
The long running trade dispute between China and the US helped IPF in 2020.
"In 2020 in the U.S., IPF worked with companies that bought a lot of their products in China or Vietnam or Asia, and suddenly, because of anti-dumping and additional import tariffs, cannot buy economically from those places," Vinas said. "They have decided to build or expand their facilities in the U.S. or find new partners across the world. This has been very challenging for them, but they did not want to be caught out by a change in the rules again."
Away from flexible foam, there was growth in sales to cold chain and domestic refrigeration, RIM's Hoong said.
"Our sales in the insulation sector were mainly focused on the appliance industry," he said. "There are many companies in China, Thailand and the wider Asian region. I think that demand from this sector grew because people were working from home, and there was a surge in demand for appliances."
RIM also started to set up new joint innovation center together with its sister company, Pumas Automation.
"We will invest SGD1m ($745,000) in this," he said.
The center is scheduled to open in the third quarter of 2021, and will focus on Industry 4.0 systems and applications.
"We are looking for partners to license the premix system in North and South America, and would like distributors in Europe, the Middle East and Africa," he said.
"When life gives you lemons, learn to juggle," said Brian Hindson, managing director at AutoRim, a U.K.-based small machinery producer and agent. "2020 wasn't the year we expected, but on balance, it was a good year for us."
Travel bans worked in the company's favor.
"Travel was curtailed, but with our Austrian partner Polytec EMC, we expanded the machine base in the U.K. with the installation of a multi-component elastomer unit," he said.
His company's technicians also worked with KruassMaffei to install high-pressure dispensing technology within a previously mothballed facility at a Toyota Motors manufacturing plant.
Additionally, just before lockdown, AutoRim won an order with partner H&S for a six-unit chemical storage facility. It has a 40,000 liter capacity, with radar level controls, offload, recirculation and remote monitoring capabilities. The system has been installed locally to the company, which based in Whaley Bridge, U.K. And outside the U.K., the company took on its first non-European agent.
While companies' production schedules were quiet during the second and third quarters of 2020, several companies took the time to upgrade their products.
FinCorp's president Habib Moujaes said that his company has developed a new machine.
"Our new flagship continuous foaming machine loaded with moving side walls, RS, Flat Top, 3 polyol streams, up to 18 catalyst and color streams, forced mixer seal lubrication, silicone mixer and state of the art touch screen controller," he said. The Lebanese company said turnover dropped by about 50 percent in 2020, but it had commercial success making machines for kitchen sponges.
StateMix's Viterra said his company had more R&D time available in 2020 than had been expected.
"We put some equipment improvement and upgrades in place sooner than we originally planned," he said. "I have had good responses to these from existing clients."
New ways of working
Coronavirus was the catalyst for new ways of working in the polyurethane machinery manufacturing industry, as it was in so many other industrial and commercial sectors, with travel impossible for large parts of the year across much of the world. Many machinery companies are relatively small, and have historically taken a hub-and-spoke approach to customer service. But that could be changing.
Alexi Kuznetsov, co-managing director at Ukraine-based OSV, said his company set up machines in remote mode. They employed video user guides to help customers with new machinery.
Trippler said 2020 was a learning experience.
"The industry will change, and we are working more from the home office now, and finding this is a good experience," he said.
There were situations, he said, where customers had new machines on site awaiting installations, but their experts were based in Germany and Italy, and could not travel.
"Instead, we used experienced local people to carry out the installations, with calls and video conferences with our experts," he said. "There was internal hesitation at Hennecke, but we had letters complementing us on the experience from some clients. This is a big change."
Pinckers at Fecken-Kirfel also described positive experiences.
"We sold several machines, with the customers buying machinery without meeting the sales team," he said. "That is really one of the positive points. We were traveling all over the world and personal contact is necessary, but we can do a lot with online meetings. We have worked hard over the past 10 years building up relationships with customers, and this has paid off."
Hennecke's Trippler believes that 2021 will be better than 2020, but still not back to normal.
"We see that coronavirus will influence our work until the end of Q2, and if there are low levels of vaccination, into Q3," he said. "This year will be all about cost control, because the pandemic is still there. We will invest where necessary, and on the other side we will see when we can get Europe back on track because, that is at a lower level."
IPF's Vinas agreed.
"I hope that in the next months we reach stability," he said. "The last months have completely changed how we do things. It is very challenging, but there is a lot of work. 2021 is going to be a very good year. We have travel constraints, but all the rules are changing."
Hoong of RIM Polymer said business has been picking up since January 2021.
"We are very busy now, especially in the appliance sector," he said. "The automotive sector is picking up in the Asia Pacific regions. For example, Hyundai is to invest in an EV car in Singapore. This is one of our focuses, and we are looking at lightweight composites and insulation components."
However, SAIP's Pozzi, said in early April that the prices of raw materials like steel and copper have been rising.
"It is a big problem, as after quoting several months ago, prices have risen sharply," he said. "It is becoming a concern. It is also difficult to get products from Asia like microchips."
He said they have had discussions with customers who are concerned about the availability of polyurethane raw materials.
"They ask us, 'If we're going to make this investment, will there be the raw materials available?'" he said. "These are complicated discussions. But we are sure that in a few months the polyurethane raw material situation will start to improve. Customers are concerned about their ROI if raw materials are not available at a higher price than they planned. 2021 could be a challenging year."
In the U.S., Viterra said his clients are optimistic.
"The bulk of our business is with companies in the U.S.," he said. "Vaccinations seem to be a positive note, and there seems to be a positive vibe more than there was six months ago."
Baumer's Hauck is also full of optimism for 2021.
"We are full of work," he said. "We had the biggest order intake in 2020 since the company was launched 75 years ago. It is just unbelievable."
Linden's Cocco reports similarly positive signs.
"We started to see an uptick in capital equipment purchases from November last year," he said. "We have a very optimistic outlook for this year; we estimate it could be up between 150 percent and 200 percent from 2020."
The company is helping North American customers cope with materials shortages, too.
"Processors are starting to think about the supply chain, and how much raw material they need to have," he said. "There have been a lot of inquiries for bulk storage systems. It could be that the raw materials companies are prioritizing bulk deliveries, trucks over totes. That may be why companies are interested in these storage systems. We're going to be busy all year. We'll be well above the 2019 level. That's our benchmark."
Look out for bumps
Fecken Kirfel's Pinckers also expects a good 2021.
"It will be close to a record year for us," he said. "We have eight-month delivery times; this is too long. We prefer four months, as eight months means that customers are deciding today on machines that they will have delivered by the end of the year. The situation could change. It will definitely compensate for the loss of turnover last year. This year we will probably make 25 percent more."
But there are concerns. First, 2021 follows a year of disruption, and clients are likely to have set relatively conservative budgets. Second, the polyurethane machinery manufacturing sector relies, like many other sectors, on shipping containers being in the right place and being priced appropriately. But, as Pinckers, said: "The world is completely disorganized. Containers are no longer in the place where they should be."
Henneck's Trippler is more forthright.
"Containers are a disaster," he said. "The price for containers is between three and five times higher than it was. It is a major problem. Also the containers are in the wrong parts of the world. They are mostly between Europe and Asia, so the lead time for shipping to North America from Europe is extremely long."
Some projects move from quarter to quarter, he said, and at the moment it is hard to judge what is a real project with real chance of happening.
"When things get back to normal, then we will see some projects disappear like smoke up the chimney," he said. "The crash of 2008 was a hard landing, and then things quickly got back to normal. Now, it is unclear when things will return to normal, or what that normal will be."