Just ask Bonnie Stuck, president of Akron Rubber Development Laboratory Inc.
She spent most of a recent week searching for a replacement for an antioxidant that's used in high heat and high flex fatigue applications, and there's no chemical substitute for it. Stuck said shortage of raw materials has been an ongoing issue for some time, and she doesn't see it ending anytime soon.
"Now that we're globally sourced, the transportation issue becomes a part of it," she said. "And we have a natural rubber issue, and a lot of that is we've gone many years without thought of the supply chain. World War II and the rubber situation was critical, but it's becoming more so now because in natural rubber you have to invest in the actual plants so the people can make a living wage."
If that doesn't happen, then more nations will react like Malaysia and shift planting away from rubber to crops like palm oil, which is much less labor intensive.
Ernie Pouttu, president and CEO of Harwick Standard Distribution Corp., said the shortages were caused by a number of factors that happened in succession. Besides the pandemic, there was the freeze in Texas, impact from a hurricane and the major issues at shipping ports.
"It seems like every day something different comes up," Pouttu said.
He doesn't want to seem too gloom and doom, and he's glad that business has bounced back. "It's always challenging," Pouttu said. "It's just what are the challenges and how do we face them?"
The Harwick Standard exec expects to see some normalization by the start of 2022.
"Am I optimistic? Of course I am," he said. "We've been through tough times before and we've always come out of them. The business levels are good. There is a demand out there.
"We just need to get the supply chain fixed. Overall it shouldn't be that hard of a fix. Various customers have orders on the books and I believe we will be able to get products to fill those orders."
Others are seeing similar issues, but aren't sure the light at the end of the tunnel will come that quickly.
Rick Valeriote, a director with Poly-Nova Technologies L.P. in Guelph, Ontario, likens the current situation to the last time a pandemic (the Spanish flu) such as this occurred, which led to the Roaring '20s back a century ago. He said things will get worse before they get better in terms of demand going higher, and suppliers will have a difficult time meeting demand.
"If I was still in that CEO role, this would be keeping me up at night," Valeriote said. "Where the heck are we going to get material? And second, even as automated as we are, there are still a significant number of human beings in that building. Without them, as sophisticated as we think that equipment is, we are not yet at the point of artificial intelligence that those machines are running themselves."
Looking ahead, he sees continued problems with silicone rubber supply, because the demand for chemical grade silicon metal has gone through the roof because of its applications in other uses besides silicone elastomers.
"You have a whole bunch of people competing for the basic starting material for silicone. Add to it the lack of polymerization capacity, caused by the price of silicone being too low for too long," he said. "You end up waking up one day in the middle of a significant supply crisis, which is where we are right now."
Many of the problems are tied to logistics and freight, or getting materials and goods from one place to another, according to Anthony Mariniello, ChemSpec technical sales manager.
Mariniello, who is treasurer of the ACS Rubber Division and will be chair in 2023, said demand is strong, and the rebound has been stronger than 2020 and 2019.
"The industry seems to be in a growth-driven area, at least for what we're seeing in terms of product moving," he said. "Folks seem to be growing. Folks seem to be manufacturing."
The concern he sees is with the price increases. What will the impact be on end users?
"All we do everyday is adjust prices. I don't think there's one day that something's not being impacted," Mariniello said.
Forecasts on when this will end range from three to six months, with others expecting a time frame more around 18 months. "If our economy continues to grow and we drive unemployment down, and have right interest rates and funding in place, we can continue," Mariniello said. "But if an inflationary event occurs and we begin to have a pullback, then that would impact the amount of material that is going to be demanded. I could see that causing a ramp-down."