It's been more than three months since the novel coronavirus pandemic took hold in the U.S. and shut down large parts of the economy. And because of that there's been plenty of bad news in the tire and rubber industry.
One need look no further than the virtual closing of the auto industry that set off a domino effect that rolled over the automotive supply chain. Or the revised tire shipments forecast put out by the U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association that calls for an 18 percent overall drop, bringing domestic shipments to their lowest level in decades.
But if you look close enough, there are some glimmers of hope within the industry. Slowly but surely the tire factories that had been temporarily shuttered are coming back on line. They won't be back to full throttle for some time, and the companies need to be diligent in keeping the health and safety of the workers as the top priority, as evidenced by the rising number of COVID-19 cases at Bridgestone's tire plant in Des Moines, Iowa.
Elsewhere is evidence that there still were opportunities to do business during the pandemic, along with a glimpse into what things will look like going forward.
Injection press maker Rep Corp. was one firm that found ways to make some gains during this down business climate. While its spare parts and service work maintained strong throughout, the subsidiary of France's Rep International also was able to bring a number of new customers on board during the coronavirus outbreak.
With the slower pace many potential customers found themselves in as a result of the slowdown, Rep said many small- and mid-level molders took this time to do planning and assess projects in a way they normally couldn't because of the hectic pace of business. The machinery firm likewise was able to work more closely with these molders, passing on what its team felt were the best options available.
In one case, Rep turned around a press order from first contact to delivery in just 11 days, and in others, found customers not normally in its sphere of prospects, such as one plastics molder looking to get into rubber.
Guill Tool & Engineering is another firm with positive stories to tell. The Rhode Island-based firm designs and makes custom extrusion tooling for a number of industries, including medical and the military. One customer told company officials early in the crisis it needed Guill to step up and provide tooling used to produce hoses for much-needed ventilators.
Guill was able to make the turnaround in less than a week, compared to the normal four-week lead time. Sales are up for both of the tooling firm's units, and none of its 77 employees have been furloughed.
Ohio's Grand River Rubber & Plastics has seen high demand for its gaskets used in medical products, as well as for its electrical gaskets that are needed in stable industries such as water meters and wastewater treatment. The employee-owned company has remained operational, and lagging sales in some markets largely have been offset by other sectors.
Let's be clear. There are still difficult times ahead for many in the rubber industry. But the way forward is becoming just a bit clearer.