In any discussion of personal protective equipment production in these times of COVID-19, perhaps the least avoidable word is “scalability.”
As in: “We need a few billion of (insert name of PPE here). What kind of scalability can you deliver?”
Scalability, of course, is how easily something can be massively expanded or upgraded on demand.
That depends on whether we’re talking about face masks (relatively easy), gowns (a bit more difficult), or disposable gloves (forgetaboutit).
Shortages will always be with us
Since COVID-19 sprang upon an unsuspecting world back in January, PPE has experienced massive shortages worldwide. In March and April, both U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, advised against face masks for the general public. As it turned out, they were trying to protect front-line health workers by ensuring there were enough masks for those who face the pandemic every day.
They have since revised their guidelines and masks are flooding the market. Everybody with a sewing machine and some extra fabric started making them in their basement.
While there are still critical shortages of all forms of PPE, the disposable glove market remains especially troublesome. It’s not a new problem; it has happened before. It is also the least likely of these essential goods to scale quickly.
The demand is not lessening
Seven months into the coronavirus pandemic, the world needs hundreds of billions more gloves. Medical gloves, industrial gloves. Thick gloves, thin gloves, in-between gloves. Nitrile and latex and vinyl and polyethylene gloves.
They are not forthcoming, at least not quickly. Some of that can be attributed to the unique nature of glove manufacturing, from the raw materials to the production process to the supply chain.
Synthetic rubber, also known as NBR or nitrile, is challenging to scale in a hurry. The glove industry, after decades of fairly stable production, was not prepared for the sudden jump in demand, and neither were the makers of NBR.
Even though 90% of the disposable glove industry is concentrated in Malaysia and Thailand, producers themselves are small and fragmented. The world’s biggest manufacturer has market share of less than 10%.
Not enough workers to go around
A skilled workforce is difficult to come by, especially with movement control orders (MCOs) limiting who glove makers can hire. The Malaysian government recently announced it was suspending the intake of new foreign workers till the end of the year while encouraging companies to hire more Malaysians.
Because of export and transportation restrictions by some producing countries, shipping containers were stuck in various ports due to quarantines. Disputes over alleged labor abuses have also prevented some gloves from entering the U.S.
Simply building more factories would seem the easy answer, but a factory with 1 billion gloves in production would require tens of millions of dollars in investment and take more than a year to build.
So the next time you’re in a conversation about PPE and someone mentions “scalability of glove production,” you can smile and say, “You know, that’s just not feasible …”
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