Hailing from Newmarket, Ontario with offices throughout Ontario, Quebec, and the U.S., rubber compounding corporation AirBoss is one of the biggest and best in the business. Innovation carries the company forward as one of the premier composite manufacturers in the industry, and growth continues to be fuelled by product diversification and new ideas. We spoke with Vice President of Corporate Supply Chain Ed Kiell to find out more.
“AirBoss has a varied platform across the rubber compounding, defence, and automotive industries along with quite a few sectors outside of that. You can see us in mining, heavy duty conveyor belts, infrastructure, oil and gas, cable wire, tires, and tracks types of businesses,” says Ed.
The first key segment at AirBoss consists of rubber solutions, where all the custom compounding is performed for the customer. Then there is the engineered product group – which primarily services the defence sector and automotive industry.
This is an exciting place to work. There seems to be an inexhaustible number of uses for rubber products in every industry. The company makes a variety of compounds utilizing a majority of base polymers and mixing technologies. These are used across several different industries and markets where custom rubber compounds are required.
What makes AirBoss stand out is its ability to develop specialized formulations, while delivering a consistent product on an ongoing basis. “We specialize in taking the customer’s requirements, along with their application needs, to produce an optimal solution that meets both performance and financial metrics. In that way they can get the best solution for their end users,” says Ed.
AirBoss is also distinctive in its level of customer service and the capabilities that affords. Its research and development department means it is able to quickly identify solutions including logistics associated with shipping all materials to support those products.
“We go above and beyond in understanding a customer’s application and how our materials meet those applications. But it’s also about the manufacturing aspect. How can we better improve and enhance their manufacturing process to give them the best cost scenario?” asks Ed.
AirBoss is the second-largest compound manufacturer in North America. Ed stresses that the organic nature of the company’s growth, mixed with acquisitions over the last several years, has brought it to this place.
The culture is very customer-focused, and the company is always striving to be honest with the customer about what will and will not work. It values being clear about costs, understanding market drivers, and risk management.
“When it comes to rubber materials, as oil goes, so does everything else. But there are a lot of other dynamics to consider when you get into other commodities. It’s not just about the cost, but the risk also needs to be managed. That level of transparency in the relationship with our customers allows us to build up trust and integrity,” says Ed.
The same theory applies to its suppliers. AirBoss strives to be transparent when it comes to volumes, forecasts, new opportunities, challenges faced in the marketplace, and technologies.
On the defence side, AirBoss is known for such things as wearables, like gloves and boots, including Hazmat gloves, boots, masks, and filters that are worn for U.S. Army and military use. “These masks are used by the military in CBRN threat environments. We also manufacture filters and power air purifying respirators (PAPRS) that make up a complete respiratory system for the Soldier,” says Ed.
AirBoss also manufactures rapid deployable shelter systems for emergency response and disaster relief situations. These shelters can be utilized for command and control, medical triage and personnel decontamination applications supporting both military and civilian applications.
In this industry, the cost is usually looked at as a driver, but performance, a lighter weight, higher temperatures, better wear characteristics, protection levels and durability are also important. “We are always talking to our customers and sales team about the next innovation. What are the problems that keep them up at night? Where do they need a solution that the marketplace doesn’t have? We take that feedback, sit down, and ask what we can do and how we can solve these problems, as that is really what’s going to drive growth for our business,” says Ed.
For example, AirBoss has a customer that is looking for a low-cost compound. Several competitors are coming into the region from China and the rest of the Asia-Pacific region, bringing lower cost entry points. When that technology comes to North America, companies here have a hard time competing.
“They sat down with our sales team and asked for a compound that can meet all these performance characteristics. We can process it in this way, and it must be at this cost. We sat down with our chemist and reviewed the manufacturing process and necessary trials to validate the requested compound formulations,” says Ed.
Within that process, AirBoss involves its operations team to establish how to mix and blend this material. Suppliers are polled to seek cheaper alternatives to material that will still achieve these performance areas and cost levels.
AirBoss’ research and development process starts with establishing the scope and objective of a project. The company then engages a functional team with suppliers and outside vendors as required. A timeline is established with the client for when trials will be performed and sample materials delivered.
The result was the creation of a low-cost compound that meets all the requirements. It will allow the company to hold onto the market share – if not grow it – in the region.
There is a great deal of focus on sustainability and longevity in the business. The company has developed a decision-making process that includes a balance between delivering to shareholders in the short-term to gain flexibility and making sure that the decisions made today can be sustainable and promote long-term growth.
The political environment is affecting business with the primary challenge involving the recent tariffs, particularly sections 301 and 232. Section 232 imposed a ten percent tariff on imported aluminum and a twenty-five percent tariff on imported steel. Section 301 tariffs add an additional twenty-five percent tariff to a massive list of 279 Chinese products including plastics, rubber, and industrial machinery. Many of materials that AirBoss has traditionally been able to acquire offshore are now affected.
“Looking at it from the macro side, we have to go through the legislation and understand where there may be opportunities – where we can be shifting either the supply chain or manufacturing and get the best overall scenario for our business,” says Ed. “We have done a very good job of mitigating for our customers by changing sources. However, there is no certainty, so where that is going will always be a challenge.”
For much of the work AirBoss undertakes, especially on the defence and compound side, it must operate domestically because there is no option to go overseas. Air Boss plans to work its way out of this situation through organic and other growth initiatives.
The objective for AirBoss is to grow in a profitable and controlled manner. Chief Executive Officer Chris Bitsakakis believes that it is not about being the biggest but being the best at what the company does.