By Charles F Moreira, Editor
Global Times of 15 July 2021 reported that China’s glove makers have ramped up their production to meet rising demand from the U.S. and Europe amidst the enforced shutdown of Malaysia’s glove factories especially in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor state which came under Enhanced Movement Control Order( EMCO) due to a jump in the number of daily COVID-19 cases, whilst new order inquiries for gloves had increased by between 10% and 20% within weeks.
The EMCO in most districts of Selangor and Kuala Lumpur was in force from 3 to 16 July 2021, after which they reverted to regulations under Phase 1 of the National Recovery Plan which rubber glove factories are allowed to operate with no more than 60% of their workers.
According to The Malaysian Reserve of 6 July 2021, the Malaysian Rubber Gloves Manufacturers Association (MARGMA) president Dr Supramaniam Shanmugam, 60% of Malaysia’s glove makers are located in Selangor where they altogether produce 780 million gloves per day.
“Customers may turn to other countries such as China and Vietnam to get the glove supply. We stand to lose the customer base that we have built over 30 years of hard work,” said Dr. Supramaniam.
He was concerned that if EMCO is prolonged and glove manufacturing plants remain shut in Selangor, Malaysia’s global market share in gloves might shrink in the longer run, so MARGMA had pleaded with the government, specifically the Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities and the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), to allow them to operate under the EMCO.
Malaysia’s glove makers currently contribute about 67% or 320 billion pieces annually out of the 480 billion pieces worldwide, whilst China and Vietnam contribute 10% and 3% of the global supply respectively.
However, whilst glove production in China and Vietnam has been limited compared to Malaysia, however they have been increasing their capacity and Dr. Supramaniam is concerned that once customers migrate to other suppliers, it would be hard to get them back.
Meanwhile, in China, major glove makers have been working hard to expand their production capacity to meet the new orders, according to the Global Times.
China’s glove production capacity had been insufficient to meet demand but the COVID-19 crisis drove an increase in the number of rubber glove manufacturers to 5,384 disposable glove-related companies in China right now, after 2,779 companies registered in 2020 plus 235 more since January 2021, according to data from market information online platform Qichacha.
A person with the Blue Sail Group, a leading glove maker in Shandong Province in eastern China told the Global Times that it had seen and increase in orders after production was suspended at factories in Malaysia, and that over 90% of these orders came from developed countries including the U.S. and Europe.
Blue Sail had also been ramping up its production capacity with a new production line with a capacity to produce 20 billion gloves annually due to begin operation this month (July), whilst another production line with a capacity of 10 billion gloves per annum is currently under construction in Weifang, Shandong Province.
The company produces a range of vinyl, powdered and powder-free latex, and nitrile medical examination gloves. It also produces a range of vinyl food handling gloves, as well as vinyl and nitrile household gloves.
Another company INTCO Medical which produces a range of vinyl, thermoplastic elastomer (TPE), polyethylene and nitrile examination gloves is looking forward to “conspicuous” growth in worldwide orders from July.
“Malaysia is mainly producing natural latex gloves, but the clinical and ordinary gloves used in all walks of life are not latex gloves, but nitrile and other synthetic gloves,” Chen Hongyan, secretary-general of the Medical Appliances Branch of the China Medical Pharmaceutical Material Association told Global Times.
Latex is natural rubber, whilst nitrile (nitrile butadiene rubber or acrylonitrile butadiene rubber) is a synthetic rubber, which is known to be less likely to cause allergic reactions in users and more likely to offer better tensile properties and protection.
According to the BizVibe blog, the top 10 natural rubber producing countries in 2020 were:-
Since China has been heavily reliant on imports of natural rubber, prices of which had risen sharply recently, so to reduce its reliance on natural rubber, China’s glove makers have turned their development and production efforts towards gloves made from nitrile.
However, at the same time, China has been increasing its output of natural rubber production especially in its southwestern province of Yunnan since before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
According to Xinhuanet of 9 May 2019, the Yunnan Provincial Department of Industry and Information Technology had drawn up a special plan to advance the natural rubber industry by ramping up annual output of natural rubber to 600,000 tonnes, worth a total value of 9 billion yuan (1.32 billion U.S. dollars) by 2020.
At the end of 2017, there were 570,000 hectares of rubber plantations in Yunnan or about half of China’s total and the province produced 438,000 tonnes of rubber per year or 53.8% of China’s total.
Natural rubber is mainly grown in China’s seven cities and prefectures of Xishuangbanna, Pu’er, Honghe, Lincang, Dehong, Wenshan, and Baoshan. The industry employees 586,000 people, of which 90% are rubber farmers.
However, the EMCO during which the operation of glove factories in Selangor and Kuala Lumpur is already over at time of writing and according to Phase 1 of the National Recovery Plan, glove factories can resume operation, albeit with 60% of their workforce and strict observance of standard operating procedures (SOPs), so is MARGMA being unduly concerned?
Whilst Dr. Supramaniam is rightly concerned that Malaysia’s glove manufacturers could lose customers to alternative suppliers, however the shutdown only lasted two weeks, so will this loss be permanent or will the customers return, now that factory operations are allowed to resume?
According to the Global Times, whilst the supply chain disruption in Malaysia had driven more orders to China, industry insiders there had said that the supply chain transformation is increasingly tilting toward China, with or without the COVID-19 pandemic.
No rocket science
Gloves, including medical gloves are commodity items, where competition is very much based upon price, quality and reliability of the manufacturer.
Moreover, the technology involved in their manufacture is not rocket science but is well-known to manufacturers worlwide and besides China and Vietnam, glove makers are popping up in Thailand, Indonesia, India, Africa where they have an abundant supply of the input materials and cheap labour, especially for the labour-intensive sections of the production process, such as the end-of-line boxing and cartoning process.
In April 2021, we published a two-part article on advanced automation, including Industry 4.0 generation automation in Malaysia’s medical gloves industry:-
This could well be the solution to COVID-19 clusters in workplaces, especially amongst migrant workers who are housed in close quarters in dormitories with little room for adequate social distancing, as well as to achieve greater consistency and quality of gloves produced automatically and intelligently by machines at more competitive prices.
The question remains – How many of Malaysia’s glove manufacturers will adopt it?