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by Emma Cosgrove

A major U.S. producer of nitrile gloves will triple its production capacity by 2022. The factory is operated by the Showa Group, a Japanese manufacturer producing nitrile gloves for the North American markets in Fayette, Alabama, since 1972.

Showa decided to double the factory’s capacity in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the U.S., but has since upped those targets due to the pandemic, according to Chief Operating Officer Richard Heppell. 

The Alabama facility will be able to produce 800 million gloves per year by April, Heppell said in an interview. The additional expansion will increase capacity to 1.2 billion gloves per year and require more than 150 additional employees.  

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Industrial distributors and other procuring organizations have lamented in recent weeks the difficulty in obtaining nitrile gloves.

Part of the demand spike is coming from new industries that instituted glove-wearing policies due to the pandemic — grocery clerks and e-commerce pickers and packers, for example. Demand for a sturdier, all-day-oriented nitrile gloves, which Showa produced in Guatemala, is also growing as single-use nitrile gloves become harder to find. 

MSC Industrial, a customer of Showa according to Heppell, explained to analysts earlier this month that the company felt compelled to seek out new suppliers and prepay for gloves — a possible misstep in hindsight since at least one new vendor has yet to deliver a prepaid shipment, causing the distributor to report an impairment charge on the missing gloves.

Showa and others around the globe are building capacity. The largest global producer, Top Glove, recently hampered by an internal COVID-19 outbreak, is looking to hire 9,000 workers this year. But buyers should beware of completely untested operations, according to Heppell. 

“What we’re seeing through this crisis is lots of new entrants, making very big claims that they’re coming to the U.S. and they’re going to start making gloves in the U.S. And these guys are talking about making 2 billion gloves a month and being ready in 2021,” said Heppell. 

Bottlenecks upstream mean new entrants looking to make easy money in a boom market are not having an easy time, he said. It’s even a struggle for companies with decades-long supplier relationships. 

“The biggest concern is the upstream supply chain is completely choked,” Heppell said. Raw nitrile comes from Asia and Europe and suppliers are oversold as it is. Equipment too, like ceramic molds, of which scaled producers need tens of thousands to operate, are difficult to source at the moment, he said. 

Showa has recently made a deal with a U.S. chemical company making raw nitrile in the U.S. to alleviate some of the pressure. Heppell could not name the supplier due to a nondisclosure agreement.

With this new nitrile supplier and the longstanding players across the glove supply chains, longer-term contracts are becoming less of an aberration due to the supply chain volatility of the pandemic. 

“We’re going back to our distribution and asking for long-term meaningful supply agreements — i.e. five years,” Heppell said. “Therefore, it means we can take those agreements to our upstream suppliers and say, ‘Listen, we’d like you to build some nitrile, here’s how much we’d need to run these machines. And here’s a five year supply agreement.’ They love that.” 

What may sound like a win-win for everyone involved is fairly revolutionary for a company that still generally works on 30-day supply maximum order commitments from buyers. 

“Getting people to commit more than about 30 days is pretty tough. So getting five years is unheard of,” Heppell said. With five-year deals, all parties will be placing the same bet on demand staying elevated for years to come. 

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