Steve Trapp has been in the plastics industry for more than 50 years, and he has never seen a convergence of circumstances quite like what is hitting the industry these days.
Complications from the COVID-19 pandemic, resin shortages and trouble attracting workers are combining to create unprecedented challenges for plastics, the president and chief operating officer of Venture Plastics Inc. said.
But there is also opportunity, Trapp said.
Venture Plastics, with locations in Newton Falls, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, does about $40 million in annual sales each year. That's triple the amount from when Trapp came on board in 2004 when the company had yearly revenue of about $13 million.
With about 200 employees split between the two locations, the family-owned business wants to continue growing and has a goal of cracking the top 100 injection molders in North America eventually. The company was 187th in the latest Plastics News rankings.
"The industry has never seen this before. The controlled distribution, the allocation of materials for this long of a period of time. It's not just one. It's all of them," he said about resin availability these days.
Venture Plastics uses about 400 different resin formulations to make injection molded parts, so the company has a broad and deep understanding of the marketplace.
"In the industry, I started out in the material side of it, so I can speak to my experience from the material side and now from a custom injection molding side. We've never experienced this. We've never experienced a pandemic in our lives. We've never experienced labor shortages like we've seen today. So when you put all of this together, it's probably one of the most challenging times that I think manufacturing has ever experienced. And it's not just the plastics industry," he said.
Venture Plastics uses resins to create parts for industries and products including batteries, automotive, industrial, commercial and telecommunications, Trapp said. But when the pandemic caused major disruptions in demand in some of the company's key markets, Venture Plastics was able to pivot and start winning work for recreational products for the first time.
People, stuck at home or close to home, suddenly had more time on their hands and looked to recreation as a way to fill the void. Work won in recreation, Trapp believes, will continue to be an important part of Venture Plastics' business mix even as the firm's traditional sectors rebound over time.
"The market segments that support recreation just exploded," he recalled. "What we were able to do is go out and look at new markets. We were able to try on the businesses that we hadn't explored before."
With resin typically accounting for 50-60 percent of a part's overall price, Venture Plastics has had to pass along price increases at an unprecedented rate as supplies tightened. Resin price increases have been pushed through month after month at a pace over the past year or so due to a variety of hurdles, including weather outages, transportation and COVID-19.
Flexibility, Trapp said, is a key to success during these challenging times. That means quickly switching manufacturing plans if shipment of a certain type of resin is delayed. That flexibility includes moving up other jobs by switching out molds to utilize resin already on hand.
"It really demands a team approach and that's why I'm so proud of the group we have," he said. "It's going to last for a while and I'm just trying to share with the group that we've got to expect this for our future for at least another year.
"I think eventually we'll get back to old times when you can get a material when you need it and you can get the labor force when you need it. But we're going to have another year of this, I'm convinced," he added.