Aging American rubber industry must cure itself, says Freudenberg's Walker
ERJ staff report (BC)
Cleveland, Ohio – America’s moulded rubber industry has an issue – or several – that jeopardise its future growth and diminish its importance among the next generation of potential employees. But these challenges can be addressed by refocusing the industry on applied chemistry and reigniting young interest in the science of advanced material development. So said Joseph Walker during a keynote speech at the 2013 International Elastomer Conference in Cleveland on 8 October.
Walker, former chairman of the American Chemical Society’s Rubber Division and corporate director of material development and chemical regulatory compliance, Americas, for Freudenberg-NOK Sealing Technologies, told conference delegates that although America’s rubber industry is largely perceived as art-driven and nonscientific, it is fundamentally essential to successful engineering and manufacturing.
Speaking on behalf of the Rubber Division of the American Chemical Society, Walker noted that these perceptions are stifling growth in the industry.
“We aren’t attracting new talent because we don’t sell the science and technology involved with our industry to customers or potential employees,” Walker said. “Every time we talk about the rubber industry as some kind of ‘art’ and fail to communicate that it is driven by applied chemistry and scientific reasoning, we are undermining our own growth and success.
“We are communicating that our services aren’t valued, and when we communicate like this we can’t compete with other industries for new talent.”
The stakes for the US rubber industry couldn’t be higher, Walker added.
In 2012, the US chemical industry generated 25 percent of the country’s gross domestic product – some $760 billion (€561 billion) in revenue. The rubber industry, including molded, extruded and lathe cut goods and rubber tube manufacturing, accounted for $18 billion (€13.3 billion) or 2.4 percent of that total. [Source: IBISWorld Market Research: “Rubber Product Manufacturing in the US: Market Research Report.”]
Despite this modest percentage, 75 percent of US rubber corporations anticipate higher sales, 53 percent will reinvest in their businesses and 50 percent anticipate hiring more employees in 2014 and beyond.
Some of this growth is being driven by the recent push to reindustrialise America. In recent years, corporations within a variety of industries have moved at least some of their offshore manufacturing operations and production work back to the United States in a reversal of earlier outsourcing strategies.
Key megatrends are also creating growth opportunities, Walker added. Changes in fuel economy and emissions standards, fuel types and alternate energy systems require technology innovations and new materials to meet stringent performance standards. The development of advanced rubber components that can help achieve these standards is an imperative to success.
Despite these opportunities, competition from abroad and an inability to attract enough new talent into the industry to meet hiring demands signal trouble ahead, Walker noted.
“What we, as rubber industry professionals do every day, can’t be trivialised – it can’t be dumbed down,” Walker said. “We are scientists. We must focus on innovation, advanced technology, outreach to a next generation of employees, lean manufacturing and recognition of our industry as a foundation for industrial strength in the United States.
“We must showcase our technology, our industrial know-how and our scientific reasoning each and every time we are visited by a customer who uses our products and services,” Walker concluded. “We can make an impact on our markets, profits and longevity by raising the level of education, recognition and appreciation for our industry and instilling this heightened awareness in our customers. We have to change the image and fight for recognition. Our survival depends upon it.”