Manufacturing in America: Universal Polymer & Rubber

What is the state of manufacturing in America? This question has been on our minds for some time now, and after reading articles and reports on the subject, we decided to take a closer look by talking to some of the men and women on the front lines of the industry. The following interview with John Zielinski, Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Universal Polymer & Rubber, is the first in our “Manufacturing in America” series. The goal of this series is to highlight some of the manufacturing challenges and triumphs that are occurring right here in our backyards.

For context, Universal Polymer & Rubber is a privately-held company that was started in Middlefield, Ohio in 1970. Universal Polymer manufactures rubber molded parts, rubber extruded parts, and plastic extruded parts, and supplies them to a range of industries around the world. We sat down with John last month to talk about the past, present, and future of Universal Polymer. Here’s what we learned.

To start things off, can you tell me a little bit about who you are and how you got to be where you are today?

Sure. I’ve always been in manufacturing. I’ve been in a number of different industries: on the metal side of things, metal stamping, the foundry business, forging, and part fabrication. I actually ran a company that made wheels and mounted tires for off-road applications as well as trailer applications. Then, in the late 90s, early 2000s, I got into the rubber side of business, ran a compounder, and actually had my own business as an independent rep, and then in 2005, Universal was one of my principals, and their president came to me and asked me to take over their sales. We did that in 2005, and in the last 12 years, we’ve tripled our sales, both organically and through acquisitions.

That’s incredible growth! I saw your recent acquisition of Crest on your website—congrats to you.

Thank you.

When it comes to Universal Polymer, you’re definitely on an upswing. I’m trying to reconcile this happy success story with some of what I was reading. This Economist article from the other day talks about a shortage of skilled workers. Is Universal Polymer facing any challenges in that department?

Yes we are. We face the same challenges at various levels as some of the companies probably cited in The Economist. Some of our skilled and experienced workers are rubber extrusion operators, press operators, and even in general labor, there’s a shortage of workers because there are so many jobs open. Our press room, for example, is hard work, and it can get very warm in the summer. People who are looking for a cushy position or an easy job simply don’t last in that environment. There’s definitely a shortage of labor. We’re a group of six manufacturing companies, part of the Cypress Companies, and every company within Cypress is hurting for good people to fill in positions.

Is Universal Polymer embracing automation, or have things pretty much stayed the same in recent years?

We’re getting more automation, but we are far from an automated factory. For instance, we’re going more and more into injection, more automated presses, if you will, faster presses. But the rubber industry itself—it’s a big concentration around northeast Ohio—tends to be full of owner/operators who will often patch up equipment to get by. That’s how it’s always been, and these are the companies we tend to acquire. So what I’m saying is that we’re in a very mature industry, and there’s not as much automation. But in the last three years, we’ve added more of what I would call modern equipment and we have plans over the next five years to add further.

Right now, we’re looking for a visual inspection machine, which will rapidly speed up our visual inspection process (this is something that humans currently do). It’s a tedious and costly process, but some parts we make have to be looked at for excess flash or certain defects, and it’s a visual inspection. We’re looking to bring on a visual machine, which will be a nice investment.

It seems to me like today’s manufacturers understand the need to embrace innovation. Can you provide an example of an innovative solution that your company has devised in order to solve a common industry problem?

Absolutely. This past summer we launched a new mobile unit initiative as a way to better serve our customers. Basically, we designed a specially-equipped trailer that we could take on the road to provide on-the-spot hydrostatic testing and modification to customers who have purchased our pipe and manhole products. That’s an example of innovation in action, and it also shows our commitment to customer satisfaction.

That’s excellent. How would you say American manufacturing today stacks up against all the global competitors?

I would say American manufacturers are number one. When I say that, we’re talking the entire package you get for dealing with an American manufacturer. Obviously, when it comes to labor-intensive parts that are lesser engineered, we can’t really compete with the cheaper labor forces that other countries offer. So if it’s a lesser engineered commodity-type part, the American company probably won’t get the business. But for everything we offer, from sales and marketing through engineering support, through program management, to a willingness to get involved with your customers’ business as a supplier, I would say American manufacturers are the best.