On a macro level, markets for packaging and medical applications have fared well during the pandemic, while sales into automotive and some durable goods such as appliances have struggled.
Performance in 2020 "depends on markets and on whether you're a specialty business," said Bill Ridenour, president of Polymer Transaction Advisors Inc. in Foxfire, N.C. "If you're in medical or pharmaceutical or food packaging, your business probably grew and some of that could offset losses elsewhere, like automotive."
The Specialty Engineered Materials unit of Avon Lake, Ohio-based Avient Corp. was positioned well to support essential customers in health care, consumer and packaging uses where demand increased in response to COVID-19, according to Chris Pederson, unit president.
"Obviously, automotive has suffered, but even there, we were able to supply automakers who pivoted to producing ventilators during the earliest days of the pandemic," he added. "We haven't slowed our innovation pipeline in response to the coronavirus. We continue to invest in commercial, marketing, and research and development resources."
Avient's SEM unit has seen an increase in demand for essential health care applications such as respiratory care, along with additional market interest in pharmaceutical manufacturing and packaging.
"New programs are materializing and there's a rebound in automotive," said Fuhlendorf at Mocom. "Medical and diagnostics are benefiting from COVID sales."
Iyer at Asahi Kasei said U.S. auto build numbers already are improving but likely will be down vs. 2019. Techmer's Manuck said that auto business in April "was basically zero" but that his firm's sales into medical and food packaging are booming.
"We're in diverse markets and critical applications," he added. "Some medical programs that we'd had under development for two years have started. We may have lost a shift or a day at some of our plants, but we've mostly done well."
Ampacet Corp. of Tarrytown, N.Y., "is heavy on the packaging side, so we've done pretty well this year," Marketing and Global Business Vice President Mike Gaudio said.
"People are locked down at home and that's led to runs on supermarket items like food, personal care and detergent," he added. "We've been down in some other areas, but we haven't had to make any changes to production. There were a lot of requests for essential companies to stay open, so we became important."
Star Sales Director Chuck Hoop said that the firm's sales into electronics such as laptops and monitors were up, since more people were working from home. Plastics Group had to weather a few down months because one of its largest customers is in the recreational vehicle market, which wasn't designated as essential, according to Rosenthal.
"The challenge was what happened in automotive," said Swaminathan at Teknor. "The PPE [personal protective equipment] market has been good. Medical and packaging continues to do well even though surgeries are down.
"If you were selling directly into a COVID application, you couldn't keep up with demand. But we don't know if that demand is temporary or if it will be continued," he added.
At RTP, Sirois said that some markets are doing well, such as medical equipment and tubing and connectors, but it's again a question if that demand will be sustained because "visibility is poor."
Avient's Color, Additives and Inks unit has seen an increase in OEMs and converters asking for antimicrobial products for packaging, medical and fiber applications, according to Americas and Asia President Woon Keat Moh.
"Much of this activity has taken place via phone and video conference calls with customers," he said. "Even color approvals are being conducted via video calls."
Avient's Michael Garratt added that, as a key supplier to many customers that are making essential products, the firm's color unit saw an uptick in demand in health care for medical devices and nonwoven face masks; packaging for food and beverage; and infrastructure markets like wire and cable.
"Each of the industries that we serve were impacted to differing extents, but with the expanded breadth of supply resulting from our acquisition [of Clariant Masterbatches] in July, we've been able to respond quickly to those that need our solutions," added Garratt, Europe, Middle East, Africa president for Avient's color unit.
"From an operations standpoint, we organized our production lines to make sure that our workers remained safe and provided them with all required PPE, which enabled us to continue to produce without disruption and safely."
Guilfoyle said that LyondellBasell in the third quarter has seen a rebound in automotive production, as OEMs restarted manufacturing lines and worked on vehicle backlogs. The business also is seeing "significant increases" in the medical and industrial segments.
One compounder that's having a big year in 2020 in spite of its challenges is ATC Plastics LLC of Indianapolis. Managing Partner Tom Stevning said he knows his firm has been fortunate.
"We're up 30 percent and having a record year. Every month has been up," Stevning said. "Some of our competitors had issues and couldn't get material. I think we were helped by having our production site in Houston.
"We had to adjust some shifts and some of our customers in automotive took a hit, but we more than made up for it," he added. "It wasn't really a ton of new business. Our current base stayed with us."
Industry consultant Phil Karig described the 2020 performance of various end markets as "essential vs. nonessential and retail vs. nonretail."
"Even in food, supermarkets have done well, but restaurants are facing challenges," said Karig, managing director of Mathelin Bay Associates in St. Louis. "The type of comeback depends on what markets you're in. Some markets have come back quickly, but some are still in the crosshairs."