Though packaging machinery dollar shipments dropped slightly in 2012, industry watchers don't consider them to be a harbinger of bad times to come.

Speaking at the 2013 Pack Expo show, PMMI vice president of market development Jorge Izquierdo said that the latest figures for machinery shipments show a decline of 4% in 2012 to $7.4 billion. The total U.S. consumption of packaging machinery likewise dropped 4% in 2012 to $8.5 billion, as did exports of packaging machinery. Imports of packaging equipment dropped 3% last year as well.

But Izquierdo says these declines probably don't portend bad times to come for packaging equipment makers. The thing to keep in mind, he says, is that packaging equipment shipments grew at nearly a 20% rate from 2010 through 2011. This strong growth represented pent-up demand after the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, when packaging equipment shipments dropped 16%. The small decline registered last year, he maintains, is just a reflection of industry shipments finally catching up with demand.

Izquierdo says PMMI cross checks its shipment figures with other economic indicators, and these indicators don't show any signs of a sizeable slow-down for packaging equipment.

For example, backlog orders of packaging machinery rose by 3% last year. That's not something you'd expect to see if a big slow-down was ahead, he says. Also, monthly economic indicators have consistantly held above 50%, a level that indicates expansion rather than economic contraction.

Izquierdo says PMMI expects to see packaging equipment shipments grow at a single-digit rate in 2013, perhaps around 5%. He says automation is the main driver of packaging equipment sales in the U.S. Overseas, an increasing volume of consumer goods seems to be the main force driving packaging equipment sales. Particularly in emerging markets, he says, there are three main factors operative: population growth, the growth of the middle class, and a growing importance of supermarket chains all are moving the needle in packaging equipment sales.

One factor that does not seem to have had an impact on equipment sales is any move to more part-time workers among users of packaging equipment because of ObamaCare measures. "We know that manufacturers are reluctant to hire," says Izquierdo, "but that doesn't seem to have had an impact that we can detect on packaging equipment shipments."

Overall, foods and beverages continue to account for the bulk of end-use packaging equipment, accounting for 37% and 20% respectively. Pharmaceuticals and medical devices acount for another 11%, and printers/publishers another 9%, PMMI says.