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issue: January 2007 APPLIANCE Magazine

Materials Forecast
The Materials Market Still Packs a Punch


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by David Simpson, Contributing Editor

Commodity prices remain at high levels, but there are signs the worst may soon be over.

Steel shipments were generally at a high level in 2006, although U.S. inventories grew toward the end of the year. Photo courtesy of Atlas Steel Products Co.

After some 3 years of volatile, often higher materials prices, appliance companies are ready for some relief. They may be in luck. While prices for many of the basics used in the industry—including metals, insulation and glass—are at high levels, some of the pressure seems to be abating. One key factor is oil prices, which have come down from record highs. Another is slowing economies in the U.S. and elsewhere.
However, manufacturers should not expect to see a large, broad-based price drop, at least in the near term. Overall demand for materials remains high, especially in Asia. And, while oil prices have declined, they are still nowhere near the lows of U.S. $26 a barrel of a few years ago. There are new mining and oil projects on tap, but many are being delayed by strikes, environmental rules and labor and equipment shortages. Also affecting the market is that some suppliers seem more willing to proactively cut production to match demand. Another consideration is that price increases for raw materials can take a while to spread down the supply chain.
Many primary suppliers and energy companies have reported record profits. Others, usually a little further downstream, are feeling the squeeze. For instance, a plastics compounder is subject to price increases from its resin suppliers. These suppliers in turn are affected by costs for oil or natural gas feedstocks. And everyone feels the pain from such factors as high transportation costs (gas, diesel, shipping) and rising personnel outlays.
Appliance companies are among those feeling the pain. Many have found it impossible to absorb all the costs from suppliers and have passed on price increases to customers. Another OEM approach is to promote more-profitable premium or value-added models. As a result of their efforts, many appliance producers are reporting reasonable profit margins. For instance, the maker of Trane appliances, American Standard (Piscataway, New Jersey, U.S.), said that its air-conditioning systems and services segment increased third quarter 2006 income by 15.3 percent over the previous year. The company reported that pricing and product mix, combined with materials and productivity savings, more than offset the continuing impact of higher commodity costs, investments in new products, and labor cost escalations.
The Middleby Corporation (Elgin, Illinois, U.S.), a worldwide maker of restaurant and foodservice cooking equipment, also reported positive income in the quarter. According to Chairman and CEO Selim A. Bassoul, “We continue to address the rising costs of steel and other materials, through supply chain initiatives and other operating improvements. Despite the unfavorable impact of increased material costs, we realized gross margin expansion across the company.” While such happy results are not universal throughout the appliance industry, clearly many companies in the industry are getting by.

Ferrous Metals: Stabilizing Steels

The International Iron and Steel Institute (Brussels, Belgium), at a meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in October 2006, estimated that the 2006 world growth rate in apparent steel use would be 9 percent, which is higher than its previous forecasts. Apparent steel use reflects the deliveries of steel to the marketplace from the steel producer as well as from imports. These figures, however, may differ from the amount of steel actually being used. The difference is added to or drawn from inventories.
The IISI forecast for 2007 is for a slower 5 percent growth rate. The biggest growth region will again be China, but stronger credit control and administrative measures introduced by the Chinese authorities are expected to cause apparent steel use to grow by 10.4 percent compared to 14.4 percent in 2006.
After seeing 5 years of global steel output and demand growth, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Steel Committee in a meeting in Paris in November also anticipated a strong 2006. However, a less vibrant world economy should slow the increase in demand and production. Overall, 2006 crude steel production was expected to be up some 8 percent. China continued to drive the market, with its production up 23 percent for the first 9 months of 2006. China has become the world’s largest exporter of steel products. Looking at imports, growth has been particularly marked in the European Union and North America. In 2006, imports to the U.S. were expected to set a record.
The committee reported that, after declining through much of 2005, global steel prices increased during the first half of 2006. Prices were reportedly soft in China, however, due to local oversupply. Later in 2006, prices in some other markets began to decline due to high inventory levels.
Consolidation continues in the industry. Notably, Arcelor and Mittal are ready to merge, and they account for around 10 percent of world steel production. However, overall, the OECD Steel Committee saw a fragmented industry, and a risk that steel producers might add too much capacity.
In the U.S. at least, steel mill consolidation seems to have resulted in better pricing discipline and matching of availability to demand. “Proof of this is the recent shutdown by Mittal Steel of two blast furnaces and the moving up of maintenance outages by other mills,” observed Gary Hamity, president, Mapes and Sprowl Steel Ltd. (Elk Grove Village, Illinois, U.S.). “Rather than continue to over-produce and eventually lower prices to move steel (as in the past), steel mills will simply cut back production. Prices may still soften temporarily if demand falters too much, but the decline should be minimal and short lived.”
Hamity has seen tight supply and very firm prices in some of the more specialized flat rolled products used by the appliance industry. These include steel for porcelain enameling and certain coated products. Looking ahead, he sees China as a wild card. Any move to export over-capacity would send global steel prices down. On the other hand, if China increases demand for raw materials, prices could shoot up again.
According to Chairman and CEO John P. Surma of United States Steel Corporation (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.), “Recent weakening in the U.S. economy coupled with high imports and customer inventory levels have resulted in softer flat-rolled spot markets in the near term. For flat-rolled, we expect fourth quarter 2006 average realized prices and shipments to be lower than in the third quarter, and costs are expected to increase primarily due to several blast furnace outages and lower operating rates. We will adjust the duration of these outages so that our operations are in balance with our anticipated customer demand.”
Nucor Corporation (Charlotte, North Carolina, U.S.) reported scrap and scrap substitute cost per ton used was up some 18 percent in the third quarter of 2006 versus that quarter in 2005. Despite fluctuating costs, 2006 earnings and sales were at record levels through September 2006. The company expected a strong fourth quarter, but also expected it would be affected by lower shipments due to normal seasonal issues and inventory de-stocking by service center customers. It attributed this in part to the unexpectedly high levels of third quarter imports.
Stainless steel continues to make inroads in appliances. Globally, stainless steel production was estimated to be up 14.3 percent last year, according to the International Stainless Steel Forum (Brussels, Belgium). It expected that stainless steel production in the second half of 2006 would be fully utilized, and pointed out that new melting capacity was in the commissioning process. The ISSF predicted long-term stainless steel growth to be around 6 percent, subject to raw material costs returning to historical levels.
These costs are indeed an issue. Among the metals commonly found in stainless steel is nickel, which more than doubled in cost during 2006. Type 304 and Type 301 stainless steels, often used in the appliance industry, contain significant nickel content. These types are now subject to surcharges.
“With the high cost of 300-series stainless steel, our customers are asking more and more questions about alternative materials,” said Lawrence (Bo) Burr, president of metals service center Atlas Steel Products Co. (Twinsburg, Ohio, U.S.). “Consequently, both 200-series and 430 stainless steels are getting a lot more attention. These products carry a far lower surcharge than 300-series materials, which have significant nickel content. We expect that trend to continue if nickel remains at historically high cost levels.”
ATI Allegheny Ludlum (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.) anticipates an overall domestic stainless steel consumption increase of some 15 percent in 2006. According to Cheryl Botti, manager, market and product development, and Bill Milon, director of sheet marketing, “We’ve seen appliance companies switching to lower nickel bearing stainless alloys due to maximum pain from high stainless steel surcharges. A big reason is the high and volatile cost of nickel. The nickel portion of the raw material surcharge for the most common grade of stainless steel, Type 304, went from $0.44 a pound in March to $1.14 a pound in October.”
Allegheny Ludlum has a team of technical, commercial and management employees who help customers through the transition process, from the initial customer visit, to discussions about Type 304 alternatives to being part of the production trial process. It views its AL 201HP as a good choice for most applications where T304 is currently being used successfully. AL 201HP, which the company has been making for some 50 years, includes one-half the amount of nickel of Type 304, but offers similar corrosion resistance, slightly higher tensile strength, and the same physical appearance. Making the switch to this grade mainly involves an initial tooling adjustment to handle the material’s increased tensile strength.

 

Copper anode is brought to a rod mill, such as this Phelps Dodge facility in Miami, Arizona, U.S., and then cast into wire rod. In any given day a rod mill can produce over 2 million pounds of copper rod. Approximately 90 percent of copper produced goes through a rod mill.

Non-Ferrous Metals: Staying Sky-High?

Some of the most significant and sustained commodity price increases have come in non-ferrous metals. Zinc, used in steel coatings and castings, topped $2.00 a pound by late 2006, up from just $0.75 a year before. Aluminum was at $1.25, up from $0.93. Copper, used in heat exchangers, pipes and wiring, at one point was at a lofty $3.40 compared to around $2.00 a year before. Generally the increases have to do with demand, especially in Asia, rising faster than mining and production can keep up. While some analysts are viewing prices as being near a peak for this cycle, this is by no means a universal opinion.
In the die casting area, availability is plentiful, reported Daniel Twarog, president, North American Die Casting Association (Wheeling, Illinois, U.S.). He observed that die casting usage has increased globally in all industry segments, including appliances. “Based on offshore price pressures and moderating energy costs, die casting prices in 2007 will most likely stay on par with 2006. But fluctuations in metal cost will keep prices high to the OEM.”
In the powdered metal area, the number of providers has not grown or shrunk, and there continues to be ready component availability, said Jim Dale, vice president of member and industry relations at the Metal Powder Industries Federation (Princeton, New Jersey, U.S.). “But alloys such as nickel, molybdenum, chrome, and cobalt, which are affected by increased worldwide demand, need to be reflected in powder metal prices. Nickel, molybdenum and copper are common alloying agents included in higher-end products. Copper is up a lot, and molybdenum is up 10-fold.”
Looking at aluminum sheet products, J. Michael Murphy,  sales and marketing manager, Industrial Products, Alcoa North American Rolled Products (Lancaster, Pennsylvania, U.S.) noted that supply has been relatively tight in North America for coil products. Demand across all sectors has been strong. While there has been a significant reduction in North American aluminum sheet rolling capacity in the last 12 to 15 years. Despite this, he anticipates adequate supply in 2007 due to some declining demand in non-appliance market segments. And, while pricing is relatively high on a historical basis, he added that some analysts are projecting prices moderating in 2007, although Alcoa does not provide formal price projections.

Plastics: Less Stormy

In the face of strong demand, plastics prices in recent years reached high levels. The good news is that, by late 2006, falling energy and feedstock prices combined with weaker demand and heavy inventories created some downward price pressure.
Jeff Senich, business development manager of Advanced Polymer Alloys (Wilmington, Delaware, U.S.), pointed out that his company’s key raw material prices have risen as they have for many other manufacturers. While the company is committed to absorbing sudden price increases and price swings, the inexorable climb in oil prices has increased his company’s cost of raw materials, energy and transportation. This has resulted in a decision to increase its prices.
However, he added, “Barring any major political or natural disasters that adversely affect the price of oil, we see raw material pricing flattening in the next 12 months. We do not anticipate a decrease in that pricing, however. One factor that helps APA is that we are growing our sales volume significantly, and with this growth we are able to increase the volume of our purchases from suppliers. We use this as leverage for more favorable pricing. At this time we do not see availability issues in the future.”
“In the past year, we have continued to experience significant cost increases in raw materials, energy and transportation,” said Helen Sirett, business manager for durables and medical, specialty plastics business, Eastman Chemical Company (Kingsport, Tennessee, U.S.). “Prices for key raw materials have been at historically high levels during 2006. While we fully expect to meet all of our customer needs, demand for our copolyester resins has remained strong on a global basis and we expect this strong demand to continue next year. As a result of continued escalating raw material costs and high market demand, we announced price increases for our Eastar copolyester and Durastar polymer products, which are both sold into appliance end uses.”
“Prices of expanded materials seemed to have leveled out this past year,” observed Gary B. McLaughlin, vice president, sales and marketing at Huntington Foam Corp. (Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, U.S.). “Factors have included a reduction in oil prices and chemicals. But the major suppliers seem to be holding prices high.
“The shift in demand for expanded polystyrene (EPS) from the U.S. to Mexico continues, especially for packaging materials for OEMs that have transitioned to Mexico. Offshore material remains a value, but not as significant as in ’05 as the price gap between North American prices and offshore has gotten smaller. EPS packaging is regarded a better value in many cases since corrugate is at a near all-time high.”
What about next year? McLaughlin said, “There is speculation in the industry that ’07 may be a down year and the economy will impact expanded volumes.”
“Nova’s commodity products, polyethylene and polystyrene, both went through supply challenges during the year but are ending 2006 in a balanced position overall. Higher performance products, such as our Zylar acrylic co-polymers, are more stable in terms of pricing, and availability isn’t an issue,” noted John Siegrist, vice president for polymer sales, Nova Chemicals Corp. (Moon Township, Pennsylvania, U.S.). “Most of the commodity polymers saw some price volatility in 2006.
“Looking forward to 2007, I think we can expect more of the same. Commodity polymer pricing will move according to supply/demand and in general we expect 2007 to be relatively tight for major polymers. For higher performance products, we expect to see some upward price pressure based on overall demand expectations.”
BASF (Mount Olive, New Jersey, U.S.) produces a variety of commodity, engineering and specialty plastics. “Prices are up, with oil, Iraq and uncertainly on the raw materials side all having an effect,” admitted Gavin Jewell, market sector leader, Engineering Plastics Business in North America. “There has been tight supply for some of our materials, especially because of growing demand in China. We continue to address demand, and have recently opened a polyester plant in Malaysia. We already have polyester plants in Germany and the U.S. There is no difference in the materials, and we can supply identical grades of material to our global customer locations, as well as ship wherever the demand is greatest. We have also added engineering plastics compounding to our Altimira, Mexico, facility to support the growing Mexican appliance market.”
Henkel Corporation (Rocky Hill, Connecticut, U.S.), makes Loctite-branded engineering adhesives, including acrylics, anaerobics, cyanoacrylates, epoxies, and silicones. “Henkel’s global buying power has enabled us to obtain favorable prices on many of the raw materials that we use in Loctite industrial products. These economies of scale are enabling us to minimize the impact of raw materials and other external cost factors on our 2007 prices,” said Jamie Serenson, Henkel’s director of marketing, OEM assembly. “There should be no availability issues.”

 

Die castings can be made in a variety of metals, including magnesium, zinc and aluminum. This aluminum casting, weight 0.42 pound, is used as a heat sink for a CD player. The parts are sand blasted and anodized in a secondary operation to withstand the heat dissipated. Caster is Madison Precision Products, Inc. (Madison, Indiana).

Insulation: Capacity Exceeded

Fiber glass insulation supplies have been tight in North America, with strong demand outstripping supply. According to Erika Williams, product manager—acoustic and appliance OEM insulations, performance materials at Johns Manville (Denver, Colorado, U.S.), “Range-Glas XG formaldehyde-free fiber glass insulation has been subject to limited availability during the last year (although not as of early November 2006), due to strong demand across all residential and commercial markets which exceeded overall capacity.” For the next year or so, she said, “We expect the appliance market to remain relatively flat.”
For polyurethane foam insulation, a variety of blowing agents, or foam expansion agents (FEAs), are on the market. “The major trend is toward more environmentally sustainable solutions,” said Esther Rosenberg, global market manager, DuPont Formacel foam expansion agents. “Manufacturers can use a variety of FEAs, including cyclopentane, R-134A, R-141b, and R-245, depending on the energy efficiency requirements of the application, regional regulatory requirements and manufacturing capabilities. Substitutes for hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) agents are available today for appliances. Although they are a step in the right direction, they are not an ideal solution, and we are investing in next-generation FEA research.”
As far as the current market for the key blowing agents, Rosenberg said, “Supply has been sufficient to meet demand in most sectors. Raw material, transportation and energy costs will continue to impact product pricing.”
Foam Supplies, Inc. (Earth City, Missouri, U.S.) offers a blowing agent that it said is more environmentally benign than alternatives. Said Todd Keske, ecomate product development, “Our ecomate blowing agent pricing has been stable and will continue to be so for quite some time. Unlike hydrocarbons, ecomate does not have the VOC issue to deal with nor have a large competing market, that being the gas industry as a fuel additive. For other blowing agents, i.e. HFCs and HCFCs, the pricing is already high and I expect some will get higher, especially as they near phase-out dates/criteria.”
Looking at another component of foam insulation, he added that, “In MDI pricing we’ve seen some relief, but I think that could also be short lived as the TDI capacity/supply problems around the world increase.”
“Pricing of polyurethane foam is heavily dependent upon supply/demand of raw materials and the costs of underlying feedstock such as propylene oxide (polyols), benzene (MDI), and toluene (TDI),” said Bruno Barbet, appliance global market leader, Dow Polyurethanes (Midland, Michigan, U.S.). MDI and polyols are the two major raw materials used in the manufacture of polyurethane foam for appliance insulation.” Barbet said polyurethanes production was hit hard by the U.S. Gulf Coast hurricanes in 2005, and 2006 saw MDI supply issues, as well as increased demand. Other factors: new insulation regulations, particularly in Europe, and a Middle East building boom.
“Global short-term projections indicate that polyurethane producers’ operating rates will likely be above 90 percent for the next 2 to 3 years,” Barbet said. “This high operating rate, combined with account maintenance shutdowns and unplanned outages, means that the polyurethane producers are operating at their maximum capacity. Without any major capacity additions planned for the near future, producers are unlikely to lower operating rates and supply will continue to be tight-to-balanced into the near term, placing upward pressure on pricing.”

HCFC Phase Out

HCFCs are being phased out under the Montreal Protocol and, barring any significant change in aftermarket demand, potential shortages of HCFC-22 are projected in the U.S. as 2015 approaches. According to Kevin O’Shea, North American manager, DuPont Refrigerants (Wilmington, Delaware, U.S.), “The U.S. industry needs to accelerate the pace of transition, as the shortage would be expected to be more severe the slower the transition occurs. The industry must change practices to avoid shortages; transition away from R-22 faster, retrofit existing equipment to HFC where possible and increase reclamation. All signs indicate that refrigerants with lower global warming potential will be needed in the future, and we are already engaged in the development of more environmentally sustainable refrigeration solutions.
“In the U.S., concern about regulations on recordkeeping and emissions limits as well as scheduled stepdowns in HCFC supply in 2010 and 2015 are driving demand for retrofit options in commercial refrigeration and air conditioning, especially from owners of equipment with charge size greater than 50 pounds, such as supermarkets. Therefore, easy to use, mineral oil-compatible and non-ozone depleting retrofit refrigerants, such as DuPont ISCEON 9 Series refrigerants, are gaining favor. This is also true in the EU, where the industry is facing a phase out of virgin HCFC-22 for service applications starting in 2010.”

 

This is a door seal from a Miele top-loading washer. It uses Santoprene TPV from ExxonMobil Chemical. The company reports that it is shipping globally consistent product virtually anywhere in the world with a greater than 98 percent on-time record.

Glass and Energy

Globally, glass is generally tight, with Europe especially affected, said Stephen Weidner, director of marketing and sales, Pilkington (Toledo, Ohio, U.S.). “European prices have risen the last several months with a bias towards increases in pricing for the foreseeable future. Elsewhere prices are neutral to a bias toward increases. Price increases are being driven by robust demand and increases in prime costs (raw materials, transportation, some wage). I don’t see the situation changing in 2007.”
“We have seen two glass prices increases from our suppliers in 2006, and we have been warned to anticipate more increases in 2007,” reported Fred Fowler, president, Marsco Manufacturing, LLC (Chicago, Illinois, U.S.). “Although we have long-term commitments from our glass suppliers, there were infrequent spot shortages in the peak summer construction season of 2006. We have also seen a steady stream of price increases on chemicals throughout 2006. In some cases, our costs have more than doubled for the base chemicals we use. Our chemical suppliers have indicated that they will keep us supplied without risk of shortage.
“Freight and energy have again been major issues this year. Fuel costs have made truck lines more selective in the business they will take, and they have been liberally applying fuel surcharges. It is also more difficult to find available drivers. We have had several instances where we were unable to get our products moved on time due to the unavailability of trucking.
“Energy is the key factor in pricing. In addition to the two 2006 price increases, we are currently paying an energy/diesel surcharge of $1,300 per truckload of raw glass we buy. Natural gas remains an issue and is the basis for the lion’s share of the energy surcharges on raw glass. The most recent news concerning available gas supplies indicates that natural gas should not be as expensive as it was last winter, but it is still well above the surcharge baselines set three to 4 years ago.”
“Until recently, we’ve paid price increases that were mainly tied to supply/demand imbalances,” said Mark Delp, executive vice president, Gemtron (Sweetwater, Tennessee, U.S.). “Now, higher costs seem more driven by energy costs. For example, we pay a natural gas surcharge for our glass. But beyond that, suppliers such as us face an environment in which inflation is a way of life. We pay higher health care and other labor costs, transportation costs, and our energy costs have increased by double digits. Even without the pressures of commodities, it is tough to overcome costs by productivity gains. It’s a very challenging time.”
“We expect to see a flat to moderate growth North American market for our products in the next year, largely because the housing market is in a slump,” predicted Chuck McClinch, director of sales and marketing, Schott North America, Inc. (Louisville, Kentucky, U.S.). “We expect a slow start to 2007 with an upbeat finish. We don’t foresee any shortages in our glass-ceramic. We haven’t had any price increases, even as raw material and energy prices remain at high levels. The combination of a flat market and high costs with no price relief creates a problem for us.”

Bad Actors on P/E Stage

After years of relative price stability, porcelain enamel raw materials trended up significantly starting in 2004, said Brad Devine, sales and marketing manager, Ferro Corp., Industrial Coatings Group, Porcelain Enamel Division (Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.). “Raw material costs continued to rise through 2005 along with natural gas. In 2006, raw material costs continue to be a critical issue for our business and, although natural gas has stabilized this year, the cost of electricity and oxygen, also major components of the cost to produce porcelain enamel glass, have risen 20 percent or more. We have experienced significant cost increases for zinc, zircon, titanium, copper, iron, fluorine, barium, nitrates, and many other raw materials critical to the production of porcelain enamel. Lithium, nickel and cobalt have increased to unprecedented levels this year and show no signs of coming down in 2007. Additionally, packaging costs increased significantly and suppliers are adding surcharges for energy and transportation on top of base price movement.
“Because of the instability of raw material pricing and energy in 2006, we were forced to implement a price increase of 12-18 percent effective September 1, 2006, along with continuing the nickel and cobalt surcharges already in effect at that time. We continue to make process improvements and rely on lean manufacturing principles to drive our business daily, but these incremental improvements cannot offset the unprecedented raw material increases we have experienced over the last 3 years. If these raw material trends continue, I would expect porcelain enamel prices to continue to rise in 2007.”
Not surprisingly, President Jack McMahon of Pemco Corporation, (Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.) reported his company has been hit by unpredictable energy prices. “Right now, though, the bad actors are the raw materials, especially metals, which are putting tremendous pressure on margins. We are feeling the sandwich effect, in which our costs are going up, but the porcelain enamel market isn’t growing.”
Pemco implemented a price increase at the end of 2005, and surcharges for metals and other raw materials like lithium and borax early in 2006. “We are seeing another round of significant cost increases for some materials in 2007, and we are analyzing whether we will need to make another price increase. We’ve sent a letter to customers telling them about this situation and that we are reviewing the impact of these increases on our products. We plan on contacting our customer base in late November and December (2006) with the results of our analysis.”

Have Prices Peaked?

At least some price increases for commodities are likely for appliance companies in 2007. The question is, how many and how significant? Has the peak been reached? If there is some slowing of global economic activity, it’s possible that supply will have a better chance to catch up with demand. It won’t be an easy year, but with luck the material that appliance companies use will take a turn for the better, sooner rather than later.

 

 

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