Originally Published on Rubber & Plastics News | Andrew Schunk, Rubber & Plastics News Staff

DES PLAINES, Ill.— While many of the pandemic-related industry challenges that began in 2020 have morphed into other difficulties this year, the family-owned Rahco Rubber Inc. is moving into 2021 with vim and vigor, investing in equipment and eyeing opportunities in new markets.

The 75-person firm with 60,000 square feet in Chicagoland manufactures custom molded rubber parts, components and seals for an array of industries, with its “bread and butter” spaces found in food equipment, plumbing, fuel systems, irrigation and water treatment.

“We’re excited to start off 2021 with continued re-investments that strengthen our already very solid manufacturing operations by adding a new Pan Stone 350-ton injection press to our production floor,” said Jack Anton, Rahco Rubber co-owner and vice president of sales. “This new press offers great versatility for molding highly engineered rubber parts and satisfying our customer’s needs.”

But 2021 is not without its own hurdles to overcome. A year ago, industry concerns centered first and foremost on the health of employees and the production of PPE and other life-saving materials by companies deemed essential during the pandemic. Rahco was one of those businesses. “Our supply chain remained strong during the pandemic,” Anton said. “We did experience some fluctuations in customer orders by industry, though. Fortunately, Rahco has a very diverse customer base, a kind of ‘mutual fund’ approach such that as one market segment slowed, another would increase.

“We saw ripples but no tsunamis. We were deemed a necessary manufacturer and never shut down during the COVID-19 period.”

One year later, the focus for the precision custom molder, which serves customers throughout North America, is on pricing volatility for raw materials, sea-faring freight delays, poor crop production for natural rubber and exploding demand in China as the gears of the world’s biggest economy start to churn once again.

“No doubt that challenges have arisen with raw materials,” said Anton. “Natural rubber has been in short supply, and currently the EPDM market is very volatile.”

This volatility is related to China’s ‘post-COVID’ manufacturing restart, Anton said, as well as automotive, medical and building industry pressures on available feedstocks. There is limited offshore vessel space and a shortage of shipping containers, and global conglomerates that produce raw materials are reallocating their manufacturing assets.

In Southeast Asia, NR has been impacted negatively by weather, a lack of harvesters and the continued consumption of materials needed for PPE in the medical industry.

Finally and most recently, unseasonably cold weather across the southern portion of the U.S. created several processing oil manufacturing disruptions.

All of these factors may not amount to a tsunami, though they do seem to be forming a perfect storm—one that the mid-sized Rahco is certain it can weather, together, as a family.

The Anton family incorporated Rahco Rubber as a molder of miniature, high-precision rubber components for phonograph needles and cartridge assemblies in 1972. Since then, the company has outgrown its initial 5,000-sq.- ft. facility and expanded into its current home just minutes from O’Hare Airport.

“Being a family-owned and operated business has absolutely benefited our customers, our team members and overall business achievements,” Anton said. “Rahco remains a strong supply chain asset to our customers because of its continued re-investments in equipment and people.”

Agility, investments buoy Rahco

Two of Rahco’s chief virtues are its responsiveness and flexibility, such as the ability to meet a 500-part or a 500,000-part production run.

“Having all of the operations under one roof allows us productivity alignment, drives teamwork and ensures quality,” said Jim Anton, Jack’s brother and vice president of manufacturing and purchasing. “We are proud to be a ‘Made in America’ company, which has helped to fuel our growth as more and more companies on-shore or re-shore their most critical components.”

Monday through Saturday, Steve Anton, president of Rahco, and his two brothers make sure that the company remains responsive to challenges while planning for the future. The Antons say they are committed to protecting the integrity of the company that their father, Bill, started more than 50 years ago.

“This same commitment resonates through to our customers by way of our quality and value-added solutions we deliver,” Jim Anton said. “Our daily involvement means no red tape—allowing us to react and respond to our customer’s needs and opportunities.”

Jack Anton said the Pan Stone injection press was acquired specifically to support a new customer and its very large, associated contract. This press is the first of four presses slated for purchase in 2021.

The company’s injection and conventional press lineup comprises Rep, Desma, Pan Stone, Tung Yu, French Oil and Wabash machines of varying tonnages and capabilities.

“The 350-ton Pan Stone injection press that we recently purchased was viewed as a good value, was immediately available and commissioned to satisfy a huge increase in demand from an existing customer,” Jack Anton said.

Over the last several years, Rahco has invested in a new MicroView Vision system, cryogenic deflashing unit and two Rep injection presses.

As it relates to work force investment, Jack Anton said the team only got stronger with the addition of Sean Cunningham as engineering director; Shawn Durbin as director of manufacturing; Greg Ovist and Rodrigo Flores as process engineers; and Vadim Pushkarev as maintenance technician.

Rahco also has promoted from within, naming Lucia Gonzalez as shift supervisor and Thomas Warmowski as mixing supervisor.

“Rahco’s team works as an extension of our customers, supporting new component development or assisting them in resolving performance-related challenges for production parts,” Jim Anton said. “Our team of experts focus on the big four—chemistry, part design, manufacturability and economics.”

Rahco also specializes in custom mixing as well as rubber-to-substrate (both ferrous and non-ferrous molding), and is partnered with accredited labs for material and rheological testing.

“We are vertically integrated, with formulating, mixing and molding in-house. We also purchase custom-mixed compounds that are ready to use or as a masterbatch that we can accelerate,” Jack Anton said.

Rahco officials said they expect to see the food industry and oil and gas space rebound “quite well,” and the company will look to expand its footprint in aerospace.

“By choice, though we are not involved with the automotive industry directly, we do support their tier suppliers and company manufacturing assemblies, stampings or plastics as part of an end item,” Jack Anton said.

On the horizon for Rahco are opportunities to innovate in green energy, advanced infrastructure and military applications.

“Our customers know us as experts in formulation development, component design enhancement, flashless precision molding, lean manufacturing and for on-time delivery of quality parts,” Jim Anton said. “And we are hiring. Our company is strong and growing. We have big goals that require talented people with a passion to win.”