Area businesses capitalize on temporary plexiglass boom

Tim Stewart, an employee of Kohlfab Custom Plastic Fabrication, works on making plexiglass barriers. MARSHALL GORBY\STAFF

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While “pre-COVID” orders are down, there’s meteoric demand for new kinds of products

The high demand for plastic barriers and other plastic products necessitated by the pandemic has given some Dayton-area companies a dramatic boost in sales, at times 50% higher than pre-coronavirus numbers.

Plastics are in everything from automobiles to children’s toys. While the economy is down, so is the plastics industry overall. However, businesses already involved in making products from plexiglass and similar materials were well-positioned when COVID-19 hit to capitalize on the demand for products necessitated by the pandemic.

“Some plastics are flying off the shelves,” said Michael Gorman, professor and chair of business analytics at the University of Dayton School of Business. “They can’t get enough plexiglass because that’s in big demand. However, for other companies, it’s hard to shift the production from one type of plastic to another.”

Bernard Kohlberg, CEO of Kohlfab Custom Plastic Fabrication in Dayton, said his small business has been turned upside down. In March, as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down businesses, his custom plastics shop saw a drop in demand from its “pre-COVID” customers. At the same time, demand skyrocketed for a new kind of product, plexiglass barriers designed to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

To keep up with the orders streaming in from restaurants, banks and stores, his small team of five has put in a lot of overtime, Kohlberg said.

Bernard Kohlberg, CEO, of Kohlfab Custom Plastic Fabrication, shows one of many plexiglass barriers that his company makes. MARSHALL GORBY\STAFF

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Robert Benton, the manager of the Spartech plant in Greenville, which specializes in sheet plastic, said the plant rapidly transitioned in March to making mostly products related to COVID-19. Even with a decrease in its more typical orders, the plant moved from 24/5 to 24/7 and hired more employees to meet demand. Benton said face shields and barriers are about 80% of what the plant makes now and sales are up 50% from before the pandemic.

“We did see a slight downturn in some of our normal applications which paved some of the way for us being able to produce more product related to COVID,” he said. “But obviously with us having to then really transform ourselves going to 24/7 in late March, beginning of April, the demand clearly outweighed our ability to produce [at 24/5].”

Mike Ubelhart, manager of the Laird Plastics plant in Miamisburg, a materials distributor, said a large challenge has been sourcing material, which has also gone up in price due to high demand.

“A lot of the manufacturers did not have the ability to produce fast enough for the surge in business that [the pandemic] caused,” he said. “People were scrambling everywhere. What used to be a couple weeks lead time went out to four to five months to get material.”

Kohlberg said the meteoric demand for barriers and face shields is likely temporary. Sales are still up, said Benton, but the demand for COVID-related products has declined steadily since the large boom in April and May.

Gorman explained the demand for barriers was a “one-shot deal” because businesses were only going to buy these products once.

“Distilleries did the same thing when basically demand fell off and a lot of distilleries shifted into hand soaps and sanitizers,” he said. “Sanitizers, of course, that’s a consumable good that gets depleted and so it has to be replaced. Plexiglass not so much.”

The industry insiders the Dayton Daily News spoke with said they are hopeful business will return to pre-pandemic regularity someday.

“In the far future, I see this all going away,” Kohlberg said. “I’m optimistic that the whole thing’s going to end one day and go back to normal and everybody will be able to face-to-face talk to each other.”

Gorman predicts the demand for plastics will bounce back as the larger economy bounces back.

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