It’s one of several US companies on the same mission: to make America more self-reliant on essential medical equipment after the coronavirus pandemic sparked a global scramble, especially for personal protective equipment, or PPE.
“I think bad decisions have been made in American manufacturing, specifically, for critical assets like (medical gloves),” Ratigan said. “The decision has been made to make sure that never happens again.”
Prepping — in America — for the next pandemic
During CNN’s visit in December to the USMGC factory, a newly built production line “dipped” its very first nitrile gloves — a test to make sure the machines work and the complex nitrile chemistry is just right. Every one of the line’s thousands of components are made in the United States, Ratigan said.
The pandemic exposed “how dependent the US is on foreign sources which is a vulnerability in public health emergencies,” the HHS spokesperson said.
In 2020, 90% of gloves, syringes and needles used in the US were sourced from Asia alone, according to HHS. Now, Washington plans to spend $1.7 billion to spur domestic PPE production, part of $4.5 billion to help expand US manufacturing more broadly, according to HHS. The US is also investing in the domestic production of raw materials for gloves, masks, gowns, drugs, vaccines, medical test kits and other essential medical supplies.
SHOWA Americas marketing director tried to convince buyers to diversify their suppliers by buying at least some American-made gloves, he said. It was a tough sell.
“We were trapped in the ever-frustrating game of being a domestic manufacturer — but our own country won’t buy our products,” Gilbert LeVerne explained.
Pre-pandemic plans to modernize and expand the factory have been accelerated thanks to the surge in demand and a loan from the US government. Within about three years, the company expects to produce more than six times its current US output, he said.
Lacking any manufacturing experience, they enlisted help from foreign glove production experts, who will fire up the production lines next month. The gloves, they expect, will be a little bit more expensive than Asian brands.
“Hospitals and clinics and even end users are willing to pay that slight premium … so that we’re prepared for a future pandemic,” Momin told CNN.
Harnessing technology for a US-made glove
Malaysia produces the world’s largest share of medical gloves, followed by Thailand and China, according to the Malaysian Rubber Glove Manufacturers Association. It is near-impossible for US producers to compete with Asian factories on price. But imports often carry a different cost.
Ratigan insists he can compete on price while following US laws and running a workplace ethically.
“The reason that I can do this is because the technology allows me to do it in a way that I can compete with even the dirtiest user of slave labor,” he said.
The key, Ratigan said, is a process that’s virtually fully automated: A giant machine fitted with thousands of hand molds dips into a chemical mixture at a precise heat, then at just the right moment pulls off the resulting gloves.
“You could never have done this 30 years ago because the technology didn’t exist,” he said.
Gesturing towards his production line, Ratigan points to what he calls “one simple widget” — his shorthand for most anything that could be manufactured in the US by a well-paid workforce.
“There are hundreds of these widgets that should be made here and could be made here in a way that provide minimum wages of $50,000 a year, full benefits … no slave labor, no abuse and still create profitable companies,” he said.
USMGC’s minimum wage is $25 per hour, plus health care coverage and benefits — and there are plans to provide free on-site child care, Ratigan said.
“If you treat people as valuable, you always make money,” he said.
Demand-driven flexibility is key, expert says
The pandemic proved that the United States’ overreliance on Asia for medical supplies is “very high risk,” said Prashant Yadav, a health supply chain expert at the Center for Global Development in Washington.
The success of American glove producers depends on how much they can automate and whether they’re flexible enough to ramp production up or down to match demand, he told CNN.
It also depends on how long buyers remember the desperate scramble to secure PPE, Yadav said, “Or is this just a very short-term memory, and soon people will go back to thinking about ‘who’s my lowest cost supplier?'”
In the long term, the US government should help domestic PPE producers by negotiating trade agreements that ensure comparable wages in Asian factories — rather than subsidizing US firms, he said.
“Once the largest set of suppliers who export to the US raise their standards, both on quality and ethics, then everybody in the market is forced to raise their standard,” he said.
Momin and Ratigan agree.
“The US government needs to be courageous and step up and, at the very least, institute the necessary tariffs to punish those who use slaves who produce counterfeit items, including medical gloves, and allow American competitors, like ourselves, to compete on a level playing field,” Ratigan said.
Tim Lister, Florence Davey-Attlee, Darren Bull, Luke Wolagiewicz, Gary Levens, Dougla Burns, Nick Young and David Lynch contributed to this story.