The custom mixing industry has witnessed "nothing but stress for 13 months," as one executive put it, and it remains one of the tougher spaces to be successful in the rubber compounding world.
Couple a pandemic with a volatile raw materials market, lengthy supplier lead times and a stingy labor climate—even a major fire, in the case of Hexpol at its Jonesborough, Tenn., plant—and the challenges have been numerous for the last year-plus.
Competition is fierce in custom mixing and there is no quarter given by size—all companies are looking to gain market share. That said, our coverage of custom mixers in this issue revealed that size pales in comparison to value.
There are advantages to being the biggest rubber compounding suppliers in North America, as Hexpol, AirBoss and Continental's ContiTech, having established a custom mixing branch at its Auburn, Ind., campus, can offer customers large volume runs and the flexibility of supply from different facilities.
Larger companies tend to be buyers rather than sellers in an industry where mergers and acquisitions are common, but that does not mean that smaller to mid-size companies do not have their own virtues and worth.
Smaller companies are more nimble, an Achilles heel for a larger company. AirBoss' Chris Bitsakakis said he is pushing his No. 2 custom mixing company to be as "equally agile" as a smaller company, but that is easier said than done.
Turnaround time, from function to form to product, is a feather in the cap of smaller to mid-sized custom mixers like LMI Custom Mixing L.L.C., Alttran and Rainbow Master Mixing L.L.C., all Ohio companies who pride themselves on the value of a handshake.
For Lora McCambridge, technical manager and research and development chemist with Polymerics Inc. of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, it is important to maintain a personal touch to customer relationships.
"Our actual motto is 'Keeping service in the mix.' You get a much more personalized experience," McCambridge said. "We know everybody by their first name, we know their kids' names, we know what they like to do for fun on the weekends. We have a much more personal relationship with our customers."
Innovation is key for any sized company. This leads to value, the most prized commodity in the custom mixing world because it denotes stability and consistency.
To obtain value means attracting the best engineers, chemists and operators, a tough proposition given the current labor market, a trend that was echoed by industry leaders from the manufacturing floor to research and development positions.
Larger companies can offer more technical resources to this end, but it is incumbent upon smaller companies to find the talent in a smaller market.
As Hexpol's Ken Bloom said, "The custom mixing industry is big enough for everybody."
Size is important. Value is paramount.
Schunk is a reporter for Rubber & Plastics News. He can be reached at [email protected]