The Coronavirus and Plastics Processing
While the Coronavirus has stopped many parts of our economy dead in their tracks, plastics processors—those manufacturers who convert pelletized material into parts—have stepped up to meet the challenges by revamping their operations to provide life-saving personal protection equipment and many, many other products. And I believe manufacturing as a whole—plastics processing in particular—will emerge stronger, more nimble and in a better position to capitalize on opportunities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Petoskey Plastics’ employees model non-surgical isolation gowns made on a line that before Covid-19 was producing car-seat covers.
This is an interesting time to be writing about the plastics industry. All too often the business of plastics has been painted as environmental villains, polluters. Now, many have realized how vital plastics are to not just our convenience, but our health. We have reported on how many companies have rejiggered their production operations to shift — virtually on the fly — from making conventional plastics products to producing those to combat Covid-19.
One of my favorites of these stories was about Petoskey Plastics. They make plastic film for lots of different applications, among them protective car-seat covers. When the Coronavirus hit, they shifted some of this capacity to make non-surgical isolation gowns to support healthcare workers and patients. Initial capacity for this new product is 10,000 gowns a day, with plans to increase production at its plant in Petoskey, Michigan. Think about that for a second: Shifting production from car seat covers to isolation gowns, and concept, design and retooling efforts that made this possible tool fewer than five days.
Plastics processors have by and large been very busy during the pandemic. That’s fairly obvious when you consider how much plastic is used for medical devices. But it’s gone beyond the medical market.
When I go grocery shopping, I’ll make mental notes about what I see and don’t see on the shelves and what it might mean for our audience. Bread? Going fast . . . lots of bags used there. Juice? Dairy products? The shelves are not bare, but not fully stocked either. People are buying these necessities, so it stands to reason there must be demand for lots of bottles, caps, labels. Hand sanitizer?
Seems like lots of the “green” products remain, but everything else is moving. Lots of bottles, pumps, gaskets have to be in the pipeline. Toilet paper? The multi-roll packs are all wrapped in plastic.
Fruit and veggies going fast. This stands to reason; consumers are eating in now, so lots of produce bags for the fresh stuff and other types of plastics for the pre-packaged produce are being churned out.
Done shopping, I loop around the store and see five trucks waiting to be unloaded. Lots of pallets. Lots of stretch film. Good stuff, I’m thinking, again.
Of course, since plastics products are omnipresent, there have been plenty of challenges as well. Those in our audience who support the automotive industry have had a difficult time of it, though some have revamped some capacity to produce components for ventilators. Until recently, in fact, the stats on plastics processing reported by our monthly Business Index have been pretty lackluster.
All of this got me to think about the future of our industry, and I’m more optimistic about the future of plastics processing in North America than I’ve ever been in my 33-year career in plastics journalism. As grueling as it’s been, I think North American manufacturing of all types will emerge stronger, more nimble and in a better position to capitalize on opportunities as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But lessons must be learned first.
Processors of all shapes and sizes will need to think more strategically about their supply chain. They will need to build in redundancies. They will need to put in place crisis-management initiatives that have not only a Plan B, but a Plan C and D. They will need to rethink about materials and spare-parts inventories. They will need to reconsider technologies that are more common in plastics-processing operations in other parts of the world, such as automation, lights-out manufacturing, and Industry 4.0 tools such as remote accessibility to processing machinery and predictive maintenance.
And then processors need to be ready for when OEMs and other customers make the inevitable, long-overdue decision to reverse their complex and tenuous supply chains and bring more manufacturing back to the U.S.
In fact, as I was writing this, I received by email a press release that touched on this very subject from Sussex IM, a Wisconsin-based molder that was featured on our May 2020 cover.
In the release, Sussex IM’s CEO Keith Everson said, “The rebound will come, in time, and when it does, the supply-chain-related lessons of the recent past will remain a key part of the equation. Competition is more challenging than ever, and customers must evaluate other factors against the downside of failing to fulfill orders. That frequently means the selection of suppliers in closer proximity, rather than across the sea. Reshoring is simply smart business.”
Fun fact: A mischievous sort, Jim is a notorious practical joker. No one is off-limits.
About the Author
Jim Callari is the editorial director of Plastics Technology magazine. Jim has been in plastics journalism since 1988, when he joined the staff of Plastics World Magazine as senior editor. Jim joined Plastics Technology in 1997 as executive editor and became editorial director in 2009. In addition to being responsible for the overall editorial strategy of the magazine, Jim enjoys reporting on extrusion technology. He is a long-time member of the Society of Plastics Engineers and currently serves on the board of directors for SPE’s Extrusion Division. He is also a member of the content committee for NPE2021. Jim was inducted into the Plastics Pioneers Association in 2012. In 1989, Jim received the Jesse H. Neal Editorial Achievement Award, considered the Pulitzer Prize of business journalism, from the Association of Business Publishers.
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