Slow but steady changes are occurring and new opportunities are emerging in the vast latex products industry.
Officials from an assortment of businesses said at the International Latex Conference that goods made from various types of synthetic latex are making greater inroads, especially in the glove and breather bag markets, although natural rubber latex still remains in the top spot. And new uses for NR latex are cropping up, primarily in the construction industry.
``The overall demand for and use of (latex and synthetic) gloves is growing because the health care industry is growing,'' according to R. Vinny Bhalla, vice president and general manager of Pittsburgh-based Polymer Latex Inc. It's also rising in the industrial segment, he said. ``I don't think that will change anytime in the near future. It's going to get bigger.''
In addition, he said, latex use is increasing in the construction industry. He sees that area continuing to expand because the housing industry is growing.
Meanwhile, the Polymer Latex official said the manufacturing of latex goods will continue to shift offshore. For instance, dipping of nitrile gloves is moving to Asia, although the U.S. remains the major consumer of synthetic latex products.
More latex factories are springing up in Asia, Bhalla said, adding that they seem larger than those that preceded them. ``You can see that more of them are coming,'' he said.
On the surgical glove front, the market is shifting toward powder-free and synthetic latex gloves at the expense of the standard latex powdered variety, according to two SSL International P.L.C. officials.
There has been a strong move to reduce allergens in natural rubber latex goods using a variety of treatments, said Stuart Pountney, scientific officer for the glove manufacturer. ``I think there will be more development in that area,'' he said.
But there has been a steady move toward the use of synthetics, he said, and more of an effort is being made by major glove manufacturers to produce synthetic lines.
Because of that, he suggested costs for the synthetic latex variety could begin to decrease in the next two years. ``However, there's still always room for a premium brand or two,'' Pountney said.
The Cheshire, England-based company has been investing heavily in research and development for more than 10 years and the result has been the release of several key products that have pumped up the firm's sales, according to Dan Manley, vice president of marketing for SSL's Norcross, Ga.-based Regent Medical Americas division.
While the powdered variety continues to dominate the surgical glove market, powder-free and synthetic latex are gaining ground, he said.
``Powdered still has over 60 percent of the market in unit sales,'' he said. ``We think that's good because it's a big market and it's swinging at about 13 percent (to powder-free and non-latex) year over year. That's pretty significant growth for us, because we primarily sell non-latex and powder-free. So we're not in a bad position because the market is moving toward an area we play in.''
Over the last three to five years, Regent Medical has seen some pretty significant price declines.
``But in the last few quarters that trend seems to be slowing down and now the drop seems to be coming to an end,'' Manley said.
Use of the powdered variety is declining rapidly, he said. Synthetics have a small base but it's growing quickly. Nonetheless, ``natural rubber latex is still the gold standard that you have to go to judge your product. But, we think we've moved a long way with synthetics.''
The synthetic variety also is making inroads in the breather bag industry, according to Walter J. Morris, president and CEO of Noble, Okla.-based Morris Latex Products Inc.
Currently, NR latex has an 85-percent share of the market but Morris predicts synthetics soon will have about a 25-percent share. ``It's growing and will continue to grow for awhile before it levels off,'' he said.