In early March, work started to slow down at Imaginative Materials & Design, a plastic fabricator in Tucson, Arizona. The pandemic had shuttered businesses and schools, and work across the world went on pause.
Then by mid-March, the fabricator started to get calls because the company works with clear materials: acrylic, polycarbonate and clear styrene, all in demand to make shields and partitions that are now as commonplace in office buildings, hospitals, shops and restaurants as hand sanitizer at the front door.
It’s been nonstop work ever since, Earle K. Wheatley, founder of Imaginative Materials, told Supply Chain Dive in an interview.
"I’ve been doing this 42 years, and this is the craziest it’s ever been," he said. "Every hour just about there’s some kind of surprise."
He’s not alone. Röhm GmbH, a German acrylic glass manufacturer, is sold out of Plexiglas (a brand of acrylic glass) sheets through October, according to a report in Bloomberg. Sebastian Bray, head of chemicals research at Berenberg Bank, told Bloomberg that demand for plastic screens has grown threefold, and he expects a 15% to 20% annual growth rate where before it had been in the "low single digits."
Where and what that demand will be is still as big a question as how schools will open this fall and how business reopening plans will go as coronavirus cases tick up in many states.
"Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night thinking 'what am I going to do with all this material?' A couple days later, it’s 'oh man, am I going to have enough material?'" Wheatley said.
Aligning supply to a shifting shield demand
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Imaginative Materials has been flexible, building whatever customers asked. In March, when face shields disappeared from the local market, Wheatley and his team figured out how to make them. When local hospitals called for intubation boxes for emergency rooms, they started making those too.
Imaginative Materials experienced "straight up" growth after that, Wheatley said, with requests from businesses, doctor’s offices and retailers.
Demand started to level off again as indoor spaces set up their new partitioned space with Imaginative Material’s creations. Then schools started calling. They asked not just for shields and partitions and barriers, but for help figuring out what they need, and how they should be installed.
"They’re teachers; they’re not mechanical engineers," Wheatley said. "We spent a lot of time in the last month talking to schools and maintenance people as well as principals on different ways to put shields."
"Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night thinking 'what am I going to do with all this material?' A couple days later, it’s 'oh man, am I going to have enough material?'"
Earle K. Wheatley
Founder, Imaginative Materials & Design
To match supply to fluctuating demand, Wheatley didn't rely on high-tech algorithm. Rather, he ditched his usual software and "reverted back to a simpler, paper log," marking inventory in and out by hand. "Many times, on the shop floor, we can make more product in the time it takes to do the computer input," he said.
Wheatley said the company also had to be flexible in working with whatever was available. By the end of March and early April, locally made standard sheets of acrylic — four feet by eight feet at 3/16ths of an inch or a quarter inch width — were gone.
After locally made materials ran out, Wheatley turned to imported materials. The company also started buying larger sheets of materials, even though they’re more expensive, according to Wheatley. In some cases, the company retooled designs to get the best yield from the sheets, or it accepted the fact that it would lose some profit on them. It was worth it because it helped Imagination Materials keep up with their customer orders and demand.
"I haven’t had to tell anybody 'no' because we couldn’t get material, but a few times it got close," he said, adding that supplies of locally made materials, and those standard four foot by eight foot sheets, has returned.
Sourcing during a pandemic: 'Talk to humans'
Wheatley said he relied on his network and connections and a time-tested strategy: he worked the phones. "I’ve been in the business for 40 years. Fortunately, I know a lot of folks and a lot of manufacturers, so I was able to pull material from all different sources," he said.
That’s proven to be an effective tactic for businesses able to keep sourcing materials during the pandemic, said Jennifer Bisceglie, CEO at Interos, an AI-enabled supply chain risk management platform. At the onset of the pandemic, supply chains, especially those built on just in time models, were in disarray at the same time that customer demands were changing.
"The only way to get ahead of what’s happening in the here and now is to go back to old school talking to humans," she told Supply Chain Dive in an interview. "We had a bunch of customers come to us about PPE when everything hit. That was an impossible task for a data analytics company because everything was in motion."
"The only way to get ahead of what’s happening in the here and now is to go back to old school talking to humans."
Buyer-supplier relationships have gained importance during this disruptive period as the two parties work together to keep supply chains flowing and support business continuity.
Smart businesses are "literally picking up the phone and talking to customers and suppliers just to understand what they’re doing and what plans they have," Bisceglie said.
She said smart businesses are also identifying weaknesses in their supply chains now, and making adjustments so that they’re ready for whatever the pandemic brings next — or the next pandemic brings.
Relying on an existing workforce
Wheatley said Imaginative Materials is operating at about double the company’s usual capacity. He’s in the office seven days a week. But he’s decided to keep his workforce small, doing select hiring but mostly paying overtime to existing employees instead of going on a hiring binge.
"Nobody likes to lay people off they hire now," he said. "My folks could work 50 to 60 hours a week right now." That also gives him flexibility in scaling up or scaling down hours depending on whatever demand may be in the future.
He said he’s also having trouble finding new hires, which is different than the Great Recession of 2008, when the company was getting "applications every day from people looking for work," he said. Instead, he’s put out ads on Craigslist looking for more workers. He said that could be because of fears of COVID-19 working in a warehouse environment.
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