AUTHOR: JIM JOHNSON
Nitrile glove maker Showa Group is doubling production at the company's Alabama facility and sees the potential for even more growth in the future.
Work on the $20 million project continues as the new manufacturing space has been completed and equipment is arriving for installation. Two new lines each will produce about 200 million gloves a year, a move that will double current capacity. And there’s room for two more, eventually.
The first line is expected to be operational in April 2021 with the second line up and running in May, said Richard Heppell, chief operating officer for Americas, Oceania and EMEA at Showa
Installation of the new lines comes at a time when COVID-19 has driven demand for gloves and other personal protective equipment through the roof. But Showa actually planned the expansion project prior to the pandemic.
“Ahead of COVID-19, Showa Group had already decided to expand that facility to service our distribution needs across the United States,” Heppell said during an Oct. 14 interview.
High-speed production lines are being imported from Asia to allow the company to “produce more gloves, higher quality at a much greater speed,” he said.
Making gloves in the U.S., with higher costs compared Asia, is not for the faint of heart. The company, which broke ground on the current project almost a year ago, lined up commitments from customers before deciding to go ahead with the project.
Taking that approach helps the company protect the facility’s current work force of about 230 workers while still enabling growth. Adding COVID-19 to the equation means the expansion now makes even more sense.
Two new production lines in Fayette, Ala., each will produce about 200 million nitrile gloves per year, according to Showa Group.
Showa expects to hire between 80 and 100 new workers at the facility once the two new lines are up and running. A total of 27 additional employees already are on board. Another 80 or so workers could be added in the future if the two additional lines are eventually installed, as Heppell said it takes about 40 to run each new line.
“Everything we’re doing is very considered and planned and careful because we’ve got to take care of our employees first. We’ve kept those 230 employees in Fayette for the past 30 years, but it’s not easy trying to compete with Asia,” Heppell said.
Showa, as the only domestic maker of nitrile gloves, is in a unique position to help ensure domestic supply at a time when supplies can be in short supply. “PPE requirement for domestic gloves is huge right now in the United States,” he said.
“Our mission really is to bring awareness to the elected officials so our governments at the federal, state and local level do not have to rely on overseas production. It’s a critical time, of course, and the U.S. needs to keep many manufacturing jobs here at home whilst also creating job and business growth opportunities, and that’s something Showa is uniquely positioned to do,” Heppell said.
A pair of key distributors who have a long-term relationship with Showa are helping ensure the company has business for the two new lines in the years ahead.
Both Choctaw-Kaul Distribution Co. and the Central Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired have struck long-term deals to purchase gloves from the machines once they are up and running.
Choctaw-Kaul is a large industrial distribution company based in Detroit and has offices in several cities. CABVI, of Utica, N.Y., buys gloves in bulk from Showa for repackaging and sale to provide jobs for their own employees.
“Choctaw-Kaul is one of our long-term national PPE distributors in the United States. What’s happening right now is when there is over demand for these types of gloves, industry is suffering,” Heppell said. “So automotive facilities, food production, these guys who rely on this type of protection every day are finding it harder and harder to source their usual PPE needs because it’s getting sucked up around the world for COVID needs. So Choctaw-Kaul worked with us hand-in-hand to say we would like a piece of your extended capacity.”
These types of long-term deals help take the risk out of the equation for Showa, allowing the company to commit the millions of dollars needed to get new lines operational.
Similar long-term commitments from governments, which have scrambled during COVID-19 to source PPE, would further diminish the risk for Showa and ensure a domestic supply for those customers.
“The need for the U.S. is to look long term, I can’t really explain this in clearer terms. We desperately want to help and be part of the solution going forward,” Heppell said. Large, short-term orders do not really help the company plan for the future and protect jobs.
“I think what we are going to bring to this is a consistency for the considerable future, and we are going to be able to have less dependency on Asia,” he said. “What we can do together as a partnership is bring stability to the U.S. and long-term employment.”
The new lines each will be able to make about 48,000 pieces per hour versus about 12,000 per hour for the older lines, the COO said.
Virtually all nitrile gloves are made in Asia, and most of those gloves are made in Malaysia, which accounts for approximately 60 to 65 percent of the world’s production, Heppell said. Thailand adds another 18 percent or so, and China comes in at about 10 percent. Only 1 percent—gloves made by Showa in Alabama—are made elsewhere, he said.
Installation of the two new lines will push production from 400 million to 800 million gloves per year in Fayette. The addition of two more lines in the future would push that total to 1.2 billion.