CLEVELAND—The rubber industry need not look very far to correct its image problem, according to a longtime rubber executive.
The very people who work in the industry—those who witness such substandard practices as dirty work sites, poor safety habits and overall inefficiencies—can help reverse perceptions prevalent both inside and outside the business.
Joseph Walker, corporate director of material development and chemical regulatory compliance, Americas, for Freudenberg-NOK Sealing Technologies Inc., said competitive peer pressure can change how some rubber companies act, and thus change how others, especially those considering a career there, perceive the industry.
"If you're competing with a company that is, let's say, not modernized, and you know that, you have an obligation to your own company to point that out," Walker said after delivering the keynote address Oct. 8 at the ACS Rubber Division's International Elastomer Conference in Cleveland. "If something goes wrong, you have the technical wherewithal to figure out what went wrong, and you have steps in place to prevent those things from going wrong."
Walker said it is incumbent on anyone, from an employee to a salesman to a competitor, to make others aware of any problems within a company, particularly those that prevent a manufacturer from selling its goods.
"You get enough commercial people to deliver that message," Walker said, "and the owner will have to listen, or they'll have fold up their tents and go home."
How peer pressure can work
Walker, a former chairman of the Rubber Division who has more than 3 1/2 decades of experience in the industry, cited an example of how peer pressure can work.
During his previous job at Honeywell International Inc., he encountered a small company that had been awarded a contract by the Department of Defense to produce a molded device for a weapon. When the DOD found the products to be inferior, Walker said, pressure from the government prompted the company to alter its work, helping both parties succeed in the long run.
A company also can change its approach to its customers, Walker said, by not necessarily following specs of a particular product.
He said a company should tell its customer, " "I'm interested in giving you something that works and not something that meets the print, because I may be able to meet the print, but the part failed,' " Walker said. " "So, let's talk about what you expect the part to do, and how long you expect the part to do it.' That's the real difference."
During his address, Walker shared some compelling statistics based on a report by IBISWorld Market Research, "Rubber Product Manufacturing in the U.S.: Market Research Report." Among them (statistics do not count hose, belt and packing manufacturers):
• The U.S. chemical industry generated 25 percent of the country's gross domestic product, or $760 billion in revenue;
• Of that total, rubber product manufacturing accounted for 2.4 percent, or $18 billion; rubber manufacturing is expected to grow to $20 billion by 2015;
• There are nearly 1,100 rubber manufacturers in the U.S.; the average annual growth is 2.5 percent, and the average net profit is 3 percent;
• The average company does $22 million in business each year and has 79 employees;
• The average rubber professional is 58 years old, and the average salary $45,000; and
• Half of the rubber corporations anticipate adding employees next year and beyond; 53 percent say they will reinvest in their business.
Rubber companies will grow as they play key roles in producing rubber components that help achieve fuel economy, meet emissions standards and find technological innovations for alternate energy systems that have stringent performance standards, according to Walker. Companies that are bringing manufacturing back to the U.S. also are driving growth.
While Walker said he found some of the statistics troubling—particularly the average net profit of 3 percent—he said he especially is concerned about the industry's image.
"We have an image problem because if you go into one of our shops, they are sloppy," he said. "When you bring customers in and try to tell them the value of the parts you produce, and you take them to the mill room or the mixing area, they see ... operators themselves wearing as much as they are putting in the rubber compound. This doesn't go well in telling everyone we're a high-tech industry."
Having the responsibility
Walker said entities such as universities and rubber-related associations can help change that image. But he said the main responsibility lies with a rubber company. The firm has an obligation to keep its facility clean, well-organized and ensure that employees wear the right protective equipment.
"You go into some of these jobs, and the guy has no mask on, and he's ... dirty from head to toe. That's just not a strong sell point. Why would you have somebody in your kitchen and say, "Oh, by the way, don't touch the dishes or you'll get dirty.' Why would you want to eat there?"
Walker cited his own employer, Freudenberg-NOK, as an example of a company that promotes the industry in a positive way through innovation.
"People use rubber because it solves problems," he said. "The flexibility, the movement, the resilience, the compliance ... all of those you can't get out of anything but rubber," he said. "In many cases, the use of rubber allows more freedom when it comes to make metal parts or mating surfaces, because the rubber member can take up for those wide tolerances.
"No other industry has such a rapid concept to reality-tackling than the rubber industry does."
Yet, he said, the industry projects an image of being a non-technical, non-scientific career, and that, in turn, hurts companies as they compete against plastics and industries with other applied sciences as it recruits the best and brightest engineers and chemists.
"They're going to look at this and say, "I'm not sure I want to do this.' ... We're not getting the returns on our things that we should because the image that we have doesn't reflect well for us."
He said the time is ripe to change those perceptions.
"We keep talking about art and not enough science," he said. "That's a dirty, provocative statement. It's reflected in our operations and returns."
Management, he said, must understand and support the value of modern manufacturing technologies.
The Freudenberg-NOK executive strongly encouraged his peers to focus on innovation and technology, especially as they focus on securing the next generation of professionals.
"We have an obligation to showcase our technology, to showcase our industrial know-how, our scientific reach, and we do that each and every time that we have our customer in, our sales force in, or a young kid looking for a job coming in," he said.
"We can control the image that we project. We can make an impact on our markets, which in turn will make an impact on profits, which is going to make an impact on our longevity."