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Editorial: U.S. still is viable base for rubber manufacturing

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Back in 2007, the staff of Rubber & Plastics News published a six-month series titled “The Future of Rubber Manufacturing in America.”

Little did we know at the time that the project was coming out roughly a year before what now has become known as The Great Recession. That was a time when companies across the whole spectrum of the rubber industry—along with almost every other manufacturing sector—faced a fight for survival, a battle than many did not win.

Seven years later, RPN is revisiting the issue, trying to give a snapshot of where the rubber product sector in the U.S. stands, along with insight into what the future may hold. Staff members talked to officials from all facets of the industry—tire makers, auto parts suppliers, molders, global players, small shops and associations serving the industry. We took special care to touch base with a number of sources from the 2007 series.

Some trends that popped out about the rubber industry in America are clear. For one thing, there no longer seems to be an exodus for manufacturers looking to chase the lowest costs around the globe.

Instead the new mantra focuses on location, as in making your products where they are being sold. That sentiment was echoed by tire makers who are spending billions to place new capacity in the U.S., along with global non-tire conglomerates that value American manufacturing as a part of their overall production footprints.

It's also clear that automotive continues to be key to the health of the rubber industry, with the vast majority of rubber goods still finding a place in cars and other vehicles. So when the bottom fell out of automotive, rubber firms suffered, but they also benefited as the sector rebounded quicker than anticipated.

There also were several interesting nuggets that continue to be true no matter how much of the rubber business is controlled by huge global concerns: There will always be room for firms that bring quality and technology to the table; regional North American auto parts suppliers can still thrive; and small firms serving specific niches still can prosper.