At the onset of the pandemic, panicked shoppers snatched up disinfecting wipes and bottles of hand sanitizers as fast as essential workers restocked store shelves. Demand for wipes to clean surfaces and gels to clean hands often outpaced what container manufacturers could supply as COVID-19 virus infections and deaths mounted.
Fred Piercy, president and general manager of R&B Plastics Machinery LLC in Saline, Mich., recalled the whirlwind pace for manufacturers of personal hygiene products and household and workplace cleaners.
"In 2020, people tried to get any machine they could to make any container," Piercy said.
A year ago, Clorox Co. Chief Operating Officer Eric Reynolds was pushing back the availability date for wipes for the third time as the company scrambled to handle a 500 percent surge in demand in 2020 from 2019.
About the same time, Gojo Industries, the family-owned maker of Purell hand sanitizer, was dealing not only with a 600 percent increase in sales compared with 2019 but also a halt in production caused by a shortage of containers. Gojo then put $400 million toward capital investments, added 500 employees and started making its own bottles and pumps.
The dust has settled since then.
"We saw some stabilization within 2021," Piercy said. "People weren't reacting to things at breakneck speed. This year they were back to longer-term strategic fits of equipment for their business."
R&B Plastics Machinery manufactures blow molding machines, single-screw plastic extruders, extruder process screws and trimming systems for food and beverage, personal care, household, pharmaceutical, motor oil and lubricants, automotive, lawn and agricultural chemicals, and industrial specialties markets.
"2021 continued to be pretty busy for us. Very steady," Piercy said. "We'll probably be up 25 percent to 28 percent from last year as a conservative number."
At Bekum America Corp. in Williamston, Mich., Gary Carr, vice president of sales, said the North American blow molding market hasn't let up for almost two years.
"The unprecedented machinery surge demand experienced at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic transitioned in 2021 into steady new machine orders, and 2021 will conclude as a very solid year," Carr said.
To handle the consistent high demand, Bekum America completed a facility expansion this year, adding 38,000 square feet of manufacturing space and 7,400 square feet of office space to the company's existing 115,000-square-foot building.
"With our building expansion now complete, 2022 will be an opportunity for Bekum America to focus on increased machinery build output, shortened lead times and the necessary expansion of our workforce," Carr said.
In addition to the medical and cleaner markets that kept machine builders busy, Carr said Bekum experienced healthy business in the markets for food and beverage, personal care, household chemicals and agricultural chemicals.
Blow molder Meredith-Springfield Associates Inc., which serves the food and spice, liquor, and health and beauty markets, was among the companies expanding production. The company recently bought six machines for its Ludlow, Mass., site to meet demand from customers like American Distilling, B&G Foods, Henkel, Honeywell LifeMade Products and PepsiCo.
Meredith-Springfield invested $7 million into manufacturing and warehouse space. The expansion includes new machines built by Bekum and R&B and automation for bottle discharges, conveyors for leak checks and visual inspections, and baggers to palletize the products and eliminate the use of corrugated boxes.