Topliff noted that raw material costs (including freight) and availability are weighing on Alttran as well.
"Since last fall, pricing has been going up on almost all materials and there have been problems making sure materials from our suppliers are there," he said.
Topliff added that it can be difficult for some suppliers to find timely ocean freight, as ports are jammed with containers and it is a slow-go to get material to a warehouse. Consequently, suppliers are increasing inventory and pricing is increasing with what Topliff calls a "perceived lack of supply."
In addition, work force retainment and hiring remain a clear and present problem.
Topliff said attracting the brightest minds to make the best formulation for a customer's application is not always easy.
"As we all know, there is a huge void in technical knowledge in the rubber industry today, and it's not getting better," Topliff said. "That's got to be a scary proposition for a lot of companies. So we want to collaborate with companies to help them get to where they feel better informed about the decisions they are making and then maybe we mix for them too."
DeVoe echoed this trend from the perspective of the factory floor, saying it has been difficult early in the year to find hourly employees.
"We have several open positions, and are working quite a bit of overtime," she said.
Stahl said the biggest challenge on the horizon will be the long lead times from suppliers.
"The supply situation from the major polymer suppliers, that is going to be the biggest obstacle to overcome," Stahl said. "Our main market is fluoroelastomers. I don't want to say there is a shortage, but there is a long lead time to get material in."
Stahl is an optimist when he looks to the year ahead. Both January and February have been busy months for Rainbow Master Mixing, and he said he expects that to continue throughout the year, especially as businesses find their footing in the wake of COVID-19.
"I think a lot of people are starting to play catch-up from last year," Stahl said.
A slowdown to M&A?
In spite of the issues facing custom mixers, the future looks both prosperous and competitive.
As for market growth, the automotive and building and construction markets are returning at a rapid pace, Nixon said.
Merger and acquisition activity continues to be strong as well, and is expected to remain that way for the next year or so.
But that could be changing, Nixon said.
"Favorable business policy and low interest rates have been key factors until now," he said.
DeVoe said Chardon gets approached occasionally from players interested in buying the custom mixer or partnering with it, and added there is no interest from her company's perspective. DeVoe said she is intent on keeping the company independent.
"There's a lot of capacity out there," she said. "I think competition is going to continue to be tight."
Topliff added that mergers still will take place, "but at a reduced rate."
It may be innovation that helps these smaller- and mid-sized mixers overcome industry challenges.
LMI counts innovation as a core value, since product development drives just about every other facet. When the customer is happy with their consistent, stable mix, they are satisfied.
"New product development is the heart and soul of our business," Nixon said. "Our product design and engineering teams are constantly coming up with something new—and pushing boundaries. When they do, our customers benefit."
Nixon said that ownership has been supportive of LMI's growth strategy over the last 20 years.
"That's going to continue, and we are committed to being even more aggressive in the market," he said. "We want to continue to find ways to leverage our strengths, which will ultimately mean additional expansion in capacity at our current facility or elsewhere. That may come internally or through partnership or acquisition.
"But there will always be a place for small and specialty custom mixers in our industry. Bigger isn't always better. Companies can successfully stay focused in niche markets or by concentrating in an area of expertise. The smaller you are, the more of a value proposition you need to create."