A good way to gauge the pulse of the rubber industry is by talking to custom mixers. They deal in virtually all areas of the business, and generally know what the prevailing trends are.
That being said, the custom mixers generally felt positive about business in 2017. One area that saw a rebound was the oil and gas sector, as rubber goods makers serving that sector had suffered through several very tough years.
The outlook going forward also is optimistic, with an expectation that the steady growth that has been the norm for the past several years will continue.
Clients of custom mixers will continue to lean on their suppliers to continue to give technical support, including with compound development. With the ongoing difficulty in attracting and maintaining technical talent to the rubber industry, that shifts a good bit of that responsibility to the supply base.
There seems to be an uptick in the number of rubber product firms that don't want to do their own mixing, giving them an opportunity to cut costs and not have to deal as much with the regulatory concerns that come with operating in a chemical-based industry.
On-shoring of the manufacturing of rubber goods manufacturing continues to be a bit of a trend, but strictly for business reasons rather than patriotic ones. The products brought back typically are high-tech components where labor costs aren't a driving factor. In addition, logistics costs are a major driver on where companies make goods, as making the products near the end customer can have substantial monetary benefits.
Finally, while consolidation has taken place in the custom mixing sector, mixers feel there always will be a place for smaller mixers. In particular, those that serve a particular niche and deal with the more specialized elastomers geared for lower-volume, specialized production will see greater demand.
Service also will be paramount because, as the thought process goes, the bigger a supplier gets, the more difficulties they may have in efficiently servicing customers that aren't buying the large amounts of compound that larger producers need for economies of scale.