A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 2, 2020

Demand For Virus-Proofing Materials Is Exploding

Perceptions of relative safety are influencing the return of employees and customers.

But demand is driving costs as much as three times higher than normal - and this for expenses not previously budgeted which will impact already weak corporate margins. JL

Sharon Terlep and Austen Hubbard report in the Wall Street Journal:

Companies’ ability to obtain protective equipment will help determine how swiftly and smoothly they can emerge after closing. Plexiglass is especially coveted right now. Coronavirus loses potency more quickly on copper than on stainless-steel, (prompting) kits for placing copper plates over door handles. Isopropyl alcohol, the main ingredient hand sanitizer, now sells for $3,400 a metric ton, three times its price in February, Spending on masks, sanitizer and dividers is crimping corporate margins.
Manufacturers are racing to crank out the hand sanitizer, masks and clear plastic dividers that are emerging as integral elements for reopening the U.S. economy amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Stepped-up production has sent prices for materials soaring: The alcohol used in sanitizer has tripled in price since January. Wait times for plexiglass-style sheeting are now measured in months rather than weeks. Scores of companies are hunting for fabrics that block virus-laden particles to supply their employees with masks. All told, the $5 billion U.S. market for personal-protection equipment is expected to grow nearly 15% this year from 2019, according to IBISWorld, a market research firm.
Part of that market has served front-line medical workers, for example with highly protective N95 masks. Now, demand for gear is coming from myriad sectors of the economy to protect people as activity broadly restarts.
Companies’ ability to obtain scarce protective equipment and temperature-sensing cameras will help determine how swiftly and smoothly they can emerge after closing for weeks to curtail the spread of the virus. Spending on masks, sanitizer and dividers is crimping corporate margins as businesses also anticipate a stretch of lower sales from customers worried about venturing out in public, or scrimping after pay cuts and lost jobs.
Demand for protective equipment from governments and deep-pocketed buyers such as Walt Disney Co. and McDonald’s Corp. looking to protect their workers and customers could also put small businesses at a disadvantage in locating sanitizer, disinfecting wipes and other goods through suppliers or at retail stores.
“It’s easier to get 10,000 masks than it is to get 10,” said Luke Bosso, chief of staff at the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, which has helped distribute 25,000 bundles of masks and hand sanitizer to small businesses.
W.W. Grainger Inc., a distributor of industrial supplies, has added hundreds of products to its catalog, including items companies are buying to encourage physical separation and reduce exposure—such as social-distancing signs and floor markings—and to help keep facilities clean. Furniture maker Steelcase Inc. is selling cardboard screens that can be used as temporary office barriers.

Metal cabinetmaker Great Lakes Stainless Inc. is making kits for placing copper plates over door handles, given the material’s long-known antimicrobial properties, said Michael DeBruyn, the company’s president. Some initial research suggests the coronavirus loses potency more quickly on copper than it does on stainless-steel surfaces.
The clear acrylic material known as plexiglass is especially coveted right now. Clear dividers are being installed at checkout counters, restaurant tables, jury boxes, assembly lines and many other spaces where people interact in public.
A Dallas-area school district recently ordered 30,000 sheets from Plaskolite LLC, one of the country’s biggest plexiglass makers. Executive Chairman Mitch Grindley said that half of Plaskolite’s business is now related to the pandemic response and that orders placed now won’t be delivered for about five months.
“There has never been anything like this,” he said.
Kelly Victor-Burke, CEO of Burke Architectural Millwork LLC, is helping restaurant customers in Michigan install barriers between booths. She said a supplier had 300 sheets of plexiglass in stock one Friday in May. She decided to buy them that weekend, but by then they were gone.
Kimberly-Clark Corp. KMB -0.48% said it would restart production of N95-style masks because of high demand from businesses that are reopening. The maker of Cottonelle toilet paper and Huggies diapers was once a major domestic producer of the higher-performance face masks before divesting its medical-supply business in 2014, part of a broader shift in the supply chain for medical goods to Asia. By later this summer, the company plans to be making enough N95 masks for its workers and those at other businesses, such as factories and laboratories.
Recently added capacity to make tens of millions more N95s in the U.S. each month is creating shortages of the material that enables them to filter out 95% of very small particles.
High SpiritsPrices for the alcohol that is a main ingredientin hand sanitizer have soared this year.Price of isopropyl alcohol in the U.S., weeklySource: S&P Global PlattsNote: Data are through May 27
.a metric tonJune ’19Nov.April ’2001,0002,0003,000$4,000
Lydall Inc., LDL +8.45% a major maker of the filtering material for face masks known as meltblown polypropylene, said it has increased output by operating around the clock and restarting idled machines. Manchester, Conn.-based Lydall will double production by the end of the year, said Chief Executive Sara Greenstein. For now, she said, some orders are going unfilled.
“Demand far outweighs supply right now and for the foreseeable future,” Ms. Greenstein said.
Components for sanitizer are also in short supply as established manufacturers and an array of new businesses including small-batch distilleries have started making it in great quantities.
Purell-maker Gojo Industries Inc. said it would step up production aimed at supplying businesses that are reopening. Consumer-products giant Procter & Gamble Co., which doesn’t sell hand sanitizer, has been making it to distribute at its own factories.
All that extra production has led to shortages of packaging, a thickening agent and the alcohol that is sanitizer’s main ingredient, manufacturers say.
Tom Feegel, president of EO Products, which makes high-end hand sanitizer and other bath and body products using natural ingredients, said that he is paying more for alcohol and that finding pumps and bottles is a challenge. The company, which normally sells distinctly scented products to consumers, is selling sanitizer in bulk to hotels and other businesses reopening to customers.
Isopropyl alcohol, the main ingredient in many types of hand sanitizer, now sells for $3,400 a metric ton, three times its price in February, according to S&P Global Platts.
A type of alcohol for hand sanitizer is produced at plants that make ethanol, the corn-based fuel that is being produced at far lower rates since energy prices plummeted as a result of travel bans and lockdowns this year. Fewer than 10 of the more than 200 U.S. ethanol plants are set up to produce alcohol suitable for sanitizer, said Geoff Cooper, CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, a trade group.
“People are going to have the expectation that, as they return to churches, retailers and libraries, hand sanitizer will be available,” Mr. Cooper said. “Unfortunately, those places aren’t able to get any.”


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