Scale, technology give new Ohio company an edge against Asia
Down near Columbus, a huge new manufacturing plant is being built that promises to claw back some of America's competitiveness in a key high-tech, international industry that has become dominated by Asia in recent decades.
This isn't about Intel. This is a story about American Nitrile in Grove City, which makes PPE gloves. The sort of gloves that were so hard to get during the pandemic that they shot up to as much as 20-times their previous cost, if you could find them. The kind of gloves that also will continue to be used by the billions in the U.S., even in times of relatively good health. And gloves that might incorporate technology from the University of Akron and other Northeast Ohio entities to be smarter and more useful than gloves are today.
"Why is the U.S. 100% dependent on Asia for its PPE?," asks Jacob Block.
He's the man who has made this all happen. He got the idea for it after working for East Coast venture funds involved with medical equipment and brokering PPE in the early days of the pandemic with connections and pathways he'd established.
Block is the guy who — with more than a little help from his assembled team and people including Jim Hull of Summit Glove in Minerva — figured out how to set up a plant with nearly 50 miles of continuous-process glove production lines running inside a giant former Pier One warehouse, with more to be installed.
He's also the guy who raised around $180 million in equity, debt and state funding to turn the entire thing into a reality. It's already churning out thousands of gloves a minute, this very minute, with production lines that run 24/7, 365 days a year.
Those lines are amazing, even to someone like Hull, who is president of Summit Glove and has been around the industry since he was a kid.
Over the years, Hull said he has seen more than 30 glove companies in the region shut down in the face of Asian competition. But they never had an operation like American Nitrile and the size needed to compete like Block does, he said.
"Jacob's lines are 800 feet long, and each has a mile-long chain. ... They're incredible," which makes the Grove City plant among the larger plants anywhere, Hull said.
Block gave a tour of the plant, and the production lines are impressive. They run from one end of the plant to the other in rows, feeding packaging stations at one end. Each line is three stories high, with a chain of ceramic hands that go back and forth for a mile before they complete their journey. Along the way they are dipped, cured in ovens, their cuffs are rolled for removal and they are completed without flaws, removed and packed in cases of 1,000 gloves each, all on a highly automated system.
The system needs to be automated for the company to succeed, Block said. In terms of competing with Asia, American Nitrile has an advantage when it comes to energy costs, about the same material costs as its overseas competition, and higher labor costs. It will need to produce its gloves with less labor than its competitors to match or beat their prices, he said.
It's also a matter of scale, which is why American Nitrile's plant is so large — and why Block hopes to open more plants once this one is fully developed. He said he also might get a boost in the future too if the U.S. starts producing nitrile rubber domestically with projects now underway.
The Grove City plant currently has six, mile-long production lines in operation, two more about to come online and then another four that will be installed soon after.
Each line produces 25 million gloves per month.
That sounds like a lot of gloves, but compared to how many are used in the U.S., it's not even a breath of mist across the top of the bucket, say both Block and Hull. Block figures his plant, at full size, will only be making a small fraction of the gloves used in the U.S.
At full production with 12 lines, Block's plant will produce a little more than 3.5 billion ambidextrous gloves per year. While that seems like a lot, Hull said that's still only about 2% of total U.S. demand.
Don't believe it? You might think you don't use nitrile gloves, or perhaps that you only use a few each year handling petroleum products or chemicals at home.
Every time a dentist, doctor, nurse, phlebotomist or other medical professional works with a patient, they put on gloves. Often, they wear more than one pair. So, in a single, routine trip to the dentist, you might create demand for two to six pairs of gloves. A doctor's visit might require more and the number goes up quickly for longer and more complex medical applications and for folks who see providers regularly for chronic conditions.
Block hopes to make more nitrile gloves than one plant can produce, but first he's focused on completing the Grove City plant and beginning to build market share, he said.
He's getting help from Akron and its eponymous university, which has played a role in American Nitrile getting off the ground with engineering help from its polymer schools thanks to an introduction by Barry Rosenbaum, a senior fellow at the University of Akron Research Foundation.
Rosenbaum connected Block to, among others, University of Akron professor and researcher Dr. Sadhan Jana. He and others at the school are working with American Nitrile and Ohio Penal Industries on a program that uses the university to provide associates degrees to people in Ohio prisons, and Block has said he'll hire about 50 of those students for his plant.
But Jana thinks the university can do much more work with American Nitrile, not only to help it continuously improve its product and processes, but ultimately to revolutionize the gloves entirely.
"A glove needs to be smarter," Jana said. "It can expand its functions beyond what people are immediately thinking about."
How can a glove be smart? Jana has lots of ideas for that, but some of the first smart gloves will likely be able to detect certain chemicals or drugs, he said.
For example, maybe a police officer or EMS worker would have gloves that turn a different color when exposed to fentanyl, or even turn different colors depending on which drug or chemical they touched. That's also in keeping with work done by others. The University's Dr. Abraham Joy has invented technology that can be applied to wipes, enabling them to detect opioids.
Block, who already employs 15 engineers, including four chemical engineers, said he looks to Akron for technical help, engineering hires and ideas. He said he's excited about some of the technologies Jana discussed with him and said American Nitrile plans to use them.
"We absolutely plan to manufacture it," Block said of a drug-detecting glove. "It's just a question of when the technology will be ready."
Hull hopes to make further contributions as well. He's hoping American Nitrile also will get into surgeons' gloves, which unlike most medical nitrile gloves are hand-specific to offer more dexterity. They also cost a bit more and have a slightly better margin, Hull said.
Hull already has contributed a new hand mold to American Nitrile, in exchange for a small amount of equity in the company, he said. Block said those molds, patented by Hull, provide more finger dexterity than competing gloves, giving him another competitive edge.
Hull said he can help more, if needed, and is more than willing.
"We have more than 50 patents," he said of Summit Glove.
Block said he's grateful for all of the local support he's gotten so far. A Columbus native, Block moved from the New York City area to start his company here because he thought he would be close to the expertise and support he'd need to succeed.
He's gotten it, too, he said. The state has helped, with a JobsOhio grant of $3.5 million. Hull has been more than generous with his time and expertise, and the University of Akron is proving valuable as a source of both technology and worker training, Block said.
It's all in keeping with what drove Block to do this in the first place, when the U.S. found itself short on gloves and other PPE in the pandemic.
"There's no reason PPE can't be manufactured here," he reasoned then.
Block said he's not quite done hiring for the Columbus plant, which currently employs about 150 people.
That number will go up to about 200, but probably no higher, he said. More people will be needed for new production lines, but fewer will be needed for packaging as that function is further automated, he said.
Then, he'll start exploring opportunities to open a second plant.
"We're just scratching the surface here," Block said.