Plastics manufacturers adapts to business during COVID-19

Cancellations, work-from-home rules and shipping complications are cascading throughout the plastics industry as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

By March 13, the Society of Plastics Engineers had moved Antec 2020 to a digital-only event, the Plastics Industry Association had canceled its board meeting and Fly-In in Washington, D.C., medical suppliers rushed to ramp up production, and companies everywhere began urging hand-washing and "social distancing" to help keep COVID-19 from spreading.

Two major events on the U.S. plastics industry calendar, Antec and the Fly-In, had still been set to go until late on March 12.

SPE President Brian Landes sent a letter to SPE councilors at the end of day March 12 saying that escalating concern about COVID-19 made holding the conference impossible. Antec was set for March 29 to April 2 in San Antonio. Antec is the SPE's biggest annual event, and it would have been the largest U.S. plastics gathering this year.

"Antec is the premier knowledge-sharing and networking event for the plastics industry," Landes wrote in the letter. "So even though corporate travel bans and social-distancing requirements have made the networking part of Antec impossible, the knowledge-sharing will go on!"

The virtual Antec will open March 30. SPE will release more details later, Landes said in the letter. SPE also will host an online council meeting on March 27.

Tony Radoszewski, CEO and president of the Plastics Industry Association, announced late on March 12 that the March 24-26 Fly-In, a board meeting and the 2020 Posthumous Plastics Hall of Fame induction ceremony were all in the process of being canceled or moved to a later date.

The decision came after the federal government announced earlier in the day that the U.S. Capitol and related buildings housing offices for members of the Senate and House would be restricted to official business through at least the end of March.

"As a precaution for the safety of our members, guests and staff amid the growing COVID-19 pandemic, I, along with the [association's] board chairman, have decided to cancel the spring board meetings and Plastics Industry Fly-In," Radoszewski said. "Moving some aspects of the meeting to a future date demonstrates the continued commitment to the important work of [the group's] membership during this critical time."

The association said it would continue to monitor the coronavirus impact.

"Our principal concern is the safety and wellness of our members, attendees, staff, vendors and the plastics industry," Radoszewski said. "As such, we will continue to follow the official Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines regarding COVID-19 and take every precaution to keep our staff safe and our office open for business as we conduct these virtual meetings."

In addition, the association will work the next 30 days from home, starting on March 16, following an emergency declaration order from the District of Columbia. Radoszewski said in a letter sent out on March 13 that the group has systems in place to "function remotely and we do not expect this change to impact workflow."

All non-business-critical meetings that require travel will be held virtually.

Messe Düsseldorf announced March 13 it has canceled Interpack 2020 until early 2021.

The packaging trade show had been set for May 7-13. It will now take place Feb. 25 to March 3, 2021, in Düsseldorf, Germany.

Amy Steinhauser

Materials and the 1-meter rule

London-based Ineos said in a March 12 news release that employees who cannot work from home are to maintain a "1-meter rule" within offices and plants to separate themselves from co-workers and help fight the spread of the coronavirus.

All of its office-based staff must work from home "unless in exceptional circumstances," and Ineos is canceling or postponing all group events.

"We take our responsibility as a global manufacturer of essential products to everyday life very seriously," Ineos Chairman Jim Ratcliffe said in the release. "Our focus is to ensure the plants that we run, which produce products essential to everyday life including the health care system, remain operational, with the safety of our employees the No. 1 priority."

Resin distributor M. Holland, like most other companies, restricted all nonessential travel in response to the virus, it said in a statement posted on LinkedIn March 12.

"M. Holland is enabling our teams to work remotely to minimize any disruptions in servicing our clients," the statement said. "At this time, there are no significant COVID-19-related disruptions to our domestic supply chain. We are working directly with any affected clients in international markets."

Doing business in containment zones

Milan is currently center stage in the Italian coronavirus outbreak while also continuing as the heart of one of the most innovative centers of polyurethane machinery manufacturing.

Two companies spoke about doing business under the current conditions.

Bruno Fierro, corporate director of marketing and communication at Cannon SpA, said his company is "applying all the recommendations suggested by our government but we have no important delays or negative impacts on production."

Likewise, Marta Romano, marketing executive at Ekosystem srl, added: "Lombardy has been affected by coronavirus but at the moment there is no repercussion on our activities."

Both companies said that 2020 had started well, before the advent of the virus.

"We are very busy here," Romano said. "While coronavirus was spreading in China with huge and dramatic consequences, we were producing four different machines for the Chinese market. They all were shipped, and they are all now at the customers' site."

Fierro added that like other manufacturing sectors, Cannon is concerned about the supply of components and materials from China.

"We are trying to control our supply chain, and it has delivered the materials and parts for our production plants that we need up to now. We cannot exclude the possibility that we will suffer some problems in the future but, I repeat, up to now the situation is under control," he said.

Trade goods are continuing to move across borders, and the Italian government is allowing work to continue.

"Although our government decided on a strong intervention to limit the contagion, the constraints we live under allow workers to reach working sites," Fierro explained. "It also allows the delivery of goods, without limitation. Companies have the continuity to do their job."

In the U.S., companies operating in zones where there were early outbreaks also said they have been able to continue operations without interruption.

Sonoco Products Co., a South Carolina-based packaging company with operations in hard-hit areas of California, said in an emailed statement to Plastics News that it has seen "no discernible impact to production or sales.

"All of our facilities have business continuity and pandemic plans in place and are enacting procedures accordingly. We've set up a microsite that is a repository of information that is shared with customers, suppliers and our teammates," the company said.

The Hartsville-based company said it is implementing "enhanced hygiene protocols," given its food packaging products, is screening outside visitors and is banning travel to any impacted areas and large group meetings, conferences and trade shows until May 1 when it will "reevaluate the situation."

"To date, we have no teammate who has been diagnosed with the virus," the emailed statement said. "We will follow quarantine protocols, as needed, as established by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and [the World Health Organization] in the event we have a diagnosis."

Prioritizing medical customers

Evansville, Ind.-based Berry Global Group Inc. is prioritizing supply to global health care and consumer companies in response to increased demand for infection prevention products due to the spreading virus.

Berry said in a March 11 news release that it shifted capacity to its maximum output of materials for products like hard-surface disinfectant wipes, face masks, N95 respirators and other protective apparel.

"Berry's position in the supply chain for these health care materials is of critical importance," the release said. "In addition to its nonwoven capabilities, Berry also provides packaging for a number of in-demand items, such as disinfectants, hand sanitizers and soaps."

"We are proud to be a part of this fight," CEO Tom Salmon said in the release. "Many don't realize the role plastics play in protecting us from infection and the spread of disease, when in fact, they are a critical component. Our leadership position and global scale allow us to create increased supply when encountering a pandemic such as this."

The spreading coronavirus means a German company is working overtime to produce equipment to make melt-flow, nonwoven masks.

The phones are ringing off the hook and emails are flooding in to KMD Plastifizierungstechnik GmbH in Lübeck, said Kevin Duan, project manager.

"Everyone is buying masks because the virus can be passed on," he said in a phone interview. "Melt-flow is very important for the masks. You can't make the masks without melt-flow material."

KMD's melt-blown, nonwoven technology uses a single-screw extruder to extrude polypropylene, which then goes through a spinneret that turns the material into fibers. The nano-sized fibers are laid down randomly — nonwoven — so they create a barrier.

By comparison, Duan said that weaving of clothe is unidirectional, using 90-degree fiber placement, which allows the fabric to breathe.

"Everyone wants to buy machines to produce melt-flow fabric," he said. "That's why we get so many orders now. So we have to choose which orders we have to fill."

KMD cannot possibly handle all the orders, and a lot of the requests are from companies just getting into the mask boom because of COVID-19, Duan said. They want a single machine. But he said KMD is prioritizing orders to major medical products customers who will be long-term customers, "because after the coronavirus, the next cooperation is what we care about, to be honest."

Anticipating supply disruptions

Supply chain disruptions from the global spread of the new coronavirus have yet to show their full impact on production, analysts at the Center for Automotive Research said.

In a webinar held March 11, Kristin Dziczek, vice president of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based CAR, said the global effect of the coronavirus to automotive supply chains is "going to start to bite" soon.

"As the virus spreads, we're going to see greater disruptions of parts supplies from other parts of the world," Dziczek said. "Certainly, this is an industry that's had many disruptions. We had the earthquake and tsunami in 2011 [in Japan]. There's often a supplier fire or natural disaster that takes something out, and there's been virus transmissions regionally and not quite as fast spreading as this one."

But changes in the automotive industry since the SARS outbreak in China in 2002, she said, have resulted in a supply consolidation to a smaller number of platforms, meaning the supply network is more shared by global automakers.

"So while [automakers] may be making a platform vehicle in seven or eight different factories around the world, that supply chain is fairly shared and integrated," Dziczek said. "Impacts to suppliers are going to have a greater multiplier across the factories ... for a particular automaker."

Many suppliers and automakers have reported keeping two or more months' supply of parts inventory, Dziczek said, adding that the inventories are a buffer, but it may just "delay visibility of the problem."

Plastics News staff writers Bill Bregar, Frank Esposito, Sarah Kominek and Steve Toloken and Urethanes Technology International Editor Simon Robinson contributed to this report.

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