Focus: A project with 45 Americans and 28 experienced Malaysians trying to make gloves in the US

Rising from a muddy field on the outskirts of the small town of Fayette, Alabama is a brick-and-mortar symbol of the global COVID pandemic: a new glove factory.

When completed in 2024, the complex, owned by Japanese company SHOWA Glove Co, will be able to produce around 3 billion medical-grade nitrile gloves a year from its dozen new five-story automated assembly lines.

That may seem like a lot, but it’s only a small fraction of the more than 100 billion consumed each year in the United States.

“There is a thriving glove-making industry in this country, much of it government-funded,” said Dan Izhaky, chief executive of New York-based United Safety Technology, which has won support. $96 million to begin transforming an empty Baltimore steel plant.

Demand for gloves surged early in the pandemic, highlighting a glaring weakness in the US supply chain for all types of medical safety equipment. Most come from factories in Asia.

“The market has gone absolutely crazy during the pandemic,” said Richard Heppell, head of SHOWA’s U.S. division, as buyers scrambled for supplies and prices soared.

SHOWA was expanding a small, decades-old glove factory in Fayette — originally built to make old-fashioned latex gloves — when the pandemic hit. Seeing an opening for a revival of larger-scale glove manufacturing in the United States as the government reconsidered the wisdom of relying heavily on foreign sources, the company decided to triple the size of its expansion.

At least 12 other companies — a mix of domestic startups and Asian and American producers looking to set up shop or expand in the United States — are building new glove factories, including the one inside the old steel mill in Baltimore and another in a former Caterpillar plant outside of Chicago. An entrepreneur wants to build a factory on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has so far committed $572 million to five glove projects, including $81.3 million for SHOWA, “which will result in national capabilities that can produce more 600 million nitrile gloves per month,” according to an HHS spokesperson.

BUSINESS RISKS RELATED TO THE PANDEMIC

Izhaky knows the risks of embarking on a business related to the pandemic.

He and a partner hastily built a face mask factory with private funds in Los Angeles at the start of the COVID crisis, but were forced to close it when mask prices crashed and customers flew. evaporated. Most mask factories that sprung up during the pandemic have closed.

Despite that experience, Izhaky and other producers rely on customers willing to pay extra for gloves made in the United States, as well as federal mandates such as requiring them in government security stock. A group of glove makers are discussing forming a trade group to lobby for such mandates and lobbying is underway, company officials said.

“The VA, DHS, TSA, they all use huge amounts of gloves,” Izhaky said, reeling off a list of federal agencies. “We expect them to be mandated to buy Made in America.”

But that remains a risky proposition. The Biden administration has not guaranteed that it will buy output from these new operations, and the cost of domestic production, even using the newest equipment, is expected to remain higher than imports.

Making gloves requires a lot more capital than masks, which raises the stakes for those building large factories.

Modern glove factories are modeled on those developed in Asia, reversing the decades-old pattern of companies in advanced economies developing industries in low-cost regions. Izhaky’s project has 45 American employees and a team of 28 Malaysia with industry experience.

Alison Bagwell is an American engineer who spent most of her career working for Kimberly-Clark KMB.Ncreation of glove factories in Thailand and Malaysia. With private backing, it is building a $70 million factory in Sandersville, Georgia, which is slated to open next year.

“I’m pretty confident I can do it,” she said, “having done it in a third world country.”

In Fayette, the SHOWA factory produces gloves in the original production area and a towering new addition that houses the first four new production lines. Behind the building, a new structure for four additional lines is almost complete, while another four-line building has yet to be inaugurated.

Factory manager Scott Robertson leads the way as a team of women grab clumps of blue gloves as they are automatically removed from the ceramic hands used to mold them and stacked in piles.

“We have to use these automatic stackers,” he said, referring to the machines that collect the gloves, “because the gloves come off the line so fast that it’s impossible for a person to keep up.”

The company plans to install new machines here that will put the gloves into the boxes.

“We have to do everything we can to control costs,” said Gilbert LeVerne, the company’s chief marketing officer, “because this country is cost-impulsive – disaster is going and the state of mind goes back to the bottom line.” -Reuters

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