Afera has forged a leading role in supporting our Member community in dealing with the far-reaching, real-time effects of the COVID-19 crisis. As part of our mission to unite the decision-makers and creative minds of the European tape value chain in a total commitment to making the industry future-proof, the Association has launched an interactive webinar series addressing key challenges and issues coming out of the quickly developing Crisis.
Afera has also created a dedicated COVID-19 webpage with information and news relevant to keeping Member Companies up and running, and published a position statement on the key role tapes play in a host of products and processes essential to living, eating, working and keeping safe.
On 2 April, the Association held the first webinar in a series entitled “Navigating the COVID-19 crisis within the adhesive tape value chain,” hosted by Afera Secretary General Astrid Lejeune, Afera Regulatory Affairs Manager Pablo Englebienne and marketing strategist Bert van Loon. Afera’s leadership crafted and launched the series as we noticed our Members starting to feel the real-time effects of the Crisis and having important questions, concerns and advice to share with each other.
“The fact that 50 Members participated in the first webinar shows the role and importance of the Afera community in these unprecedented times,” explained Ms. Lejeune. “Right now, businesses are being bombarded with how-tos and webinar invitations to guide you through the Crisis. However, Afera is the only network of peers representing the entire industry vertical of adhesive tape across Europe.”
“And this means that it’s the unique community where people share specific challenges and solutions,” added Evert Smit, Afera president and head of R&D at Lohmann GmbH & Co. KG (Germany). “We have been doing this for decades at Afera, but most often in physical meetings. Now, during times of social distancing, is the time to extend the power of this network using online communications channels.”
Mr. Englebienne, who has hit the ground running during his first few weeks of work as Afera’s regulatory affairs specialist, performed a vast amount of groundwork and was able to update Afera Members on the current status of commercial activity around Europe. Most Member States (MSs) have declared a state of emergency, particularly limiting the movement of people and goods.
Most importantly, because of strict lockdowns in many MSs, such as the U.K., France, Italy, Spain, Belgium and Greece, there are border controls not only at the E.U.’s external borders but internal borders. Schools are all closed, from day cares all the way up to universities, with many students continuing their studies online.
There needs to be a guarantee that all goods will still move freely within Europe. The E.C. has developed special measures for border management to protect health and ensure the availability of goods and essential services. Open to all freight vehicles independent of load, origin, destination, nationality of driver or country of registration, border crossings within Europe, “Green Lanes”, should not last more than 15 minutes, including checks and screenings. Currently this applies not just to essential goods but all goods transported across Europe. Drivers and (essential) passengers are only required to carry international certificates of professional competence or certificates for International Transport Workers.
In collaboration with other industries, the folding carton industry has created a voluntary initiative in which it justifies the essentiality of packaging materials, should the E.C. move to tighten its transport policy on types of goods. Afera’s leadership has issued a statement detailing the crucial role adhesive tapes play in ensuring that vital supply chains related to healthcare, food, security, communications, construction and shipping continue to function in times of COVID-19.
Due to the economic shock caused by measures taken to control the spread of COVID-19, many companies are finding it difficult to make ends meet. The E.C. has announced a co-ordinated economic response to the COVID-19 outbreak, which includes specific measures for SMEs, direct grants or tax advantages of up to €800,000 per company, subsidised loans and state guarantees on bank loans, and additional flexibility on and access to credit. So far 9 or 10 MSs have begun implementing state aid announced by the E.C. In addition to these measures, some MSs are implementing their own programmes to ensure business continuity during and after the Crisis.
Because the Industry needs to stay up and running, it is important that businesses understand and follow general Europe-wide safety precautions as well as any measures or norms dictated by local authorities. In most MSs, employees that are not essential to production and that do not need to be present in production facilities should work from home (WFH) as much as possible. A WFH arrangement obviously requires a number of policy and IT equipment arrangements to ensure that all systems are in place, including data security.
For personnel working at company facilities, a working distance of ~2 metres must be respected. Many businesses are staggering or downsizing their personnel on site. Some Afera Member Companies have indicated that they are working in smaller groups or fixed teams with separate shifts so that they do not come into contact with each other at any point during a normal workday. In this way, if an employee falls ill and his/her team needs to be quarantined, another team can take over in order to keep production running.
The strictest standards of hygiene should be kept, so that there is good and frequent disinfection of all possible surfaces that people come into contact with, including doors, desks, keyboards and toilets. Mr. Englebienne also recommended good ventilation in all workplaces.
Adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) also needs to be worn, depending on what local and national measures dictate, but this usually includes protective face masks and gloves while working and in some cases, when out in public. Members can find out more about site operating procedures in the building sector in the U.K. and for SMEs in the Netherlands through the links provided. Greg Johnson, plant manager at PPI Adhesive Products, Ltd. (Ireland), said that while WHO and U.S. CDC recommendations on wearing masks continued to evolve, within his company, in situations in which personnel could not avoid close proximity, such as when broken equipment needed to be fixed, masks had to be worn. It remains that sourcing sufficient amounts of PPE for company personnel is challenging in some MSs.
“Afera’s Member Companies are exhibiting flexibility and resilience when it comes to functioning safely and smartly in the office and on the work floor,” Mr. Smit observed. Jeff Burrington, application specialist at H.B. Fuller U.K., Ltd., described how they try to rotate staff on a group basis in and out of facilities. “One of the things that have struck me about our situation is the impact on employees who are not given the opportunity to WFH, and of course this can be different, depending on the company,” he explained. “I think we should all be mindful of colleagues, whether in our own companies or our customers or suppliers’, who are not in a position to WFH, and the additional stress and worry that this can bring to the individual and the workplace generally.”
“We have had the same issue at Lohmann, as those working in the lab, QC, production and logistics cannot WFH, but their jobs are extremely crucial to our business,” Mr. Smit related. “Our management knew we had to be open about it. Whether we talked all together or, in some cases, on an individual basis, eventually everyone understood that just reducing the number of people in a given space helps to keep all of us safer. We were able to install our 2x2-shift system successfully in 2 days.”
“What I’m seeing and hearing is that, depending where you are located, for the last few weeks, management have realised the power of investing in human connections, especially with those WFH, to keep up the teamwork and spirit,” Mr. Van Loon pointed out. “The goal is maintaining the well-being of staff and avoiding that those who WFH start to disconnect.”
Mr. Costas Yiannopoulos, plant manager at Atlas Tapes S.A. (Greece), said that “despite all the safety measurements we have taken, many people are still afraid to work. A lot of this has to do with the fear of the unknown – about the nature of the virus.” Like Mr. Smit, he indicated that staying in close contact with personnel—showing your support and how you value their work in your company—is key.
At the beginning of the supply chain, the Industry could encounter a shortage of raw materials that go into making adhesives. Ethanol and isopropanol, while used in the manufacture of solvent-based adhesives, also serve as disinfectant liquids.
In addition to the potential unavailability of some raw materials, all imported goods from outside the E.U. will very likely be hindered due to strict controls at ports. According to Mr. Englebienne, many ports are either closed or operating at much-reduced capacity. One webinar participant mentioned that shipping costs have skyrocketed and that container shipments were not operating under normal lead and arrival times.
“The main issue my team has had over the last few weeks is making sure the supply chain is not disturbed,” Mr. Yiannopoulos related. “We are having issues with materials coming in from Italy. Over the last couple of weeks, several companies have stopped their manufacturing operations, so if they have leftover stock, sometimes we can get that. Otherwise the earliest timeframes for delivery start after Easter.”
Shipment of finished products is seeing delays at border crossing points, as the Green Lanes policy is not working optimally at every location. Some truck drivers are reluctant to drive internationally right now, depending on the route, for fear of meeting with delays and also possible application of local quarantine rules. It is also not clear if food and other provisions for transport personnel will be available en route.
“Trucks must stop at borders for much longer than before,” Mr. Yiannopoulos reported. “It's much more stressful to make sure that all shipments arrive on time.”
Lockdown measures in many MSs are far-reaching, meaning that in much of Europe, commercial activity is potentially limited to crucial industries or the supply of essential goods. Current commercial activity rules vary from state to state. Some countries designate the specific industries that may remain open, while others specify the necessary supply of certain goods, such as food. The grey area this creates may lead to questions about whether some industries or goods require justification for continued production, and whether tapes are explicitly or implicitly included in the process or product made.
“One of the biggest roles we are seeing for tape at the moment is in medical, printing and electronics applications, but there are a myriad of industries that are seen as especially essential now,” Mr. Smit explained. “And these cannot remain in operation without the proper functioning of the tape, label and adhesives industries.”
“I agree that tapes are especially crucial now in maintaining the supply chains of the food and medical industries,” added Mr. Yiannopoulos. He said that because of the output of tapes needed, the automation required for production can only be attained with the input of the chemical, flexible packaging, adhesives and labelling industries. “Today everything is linked.”
As the invisible key elements of end products, tapes are produced by intermediate product providers in the supply chain. A hiccup in one phase of the chain means that vital supplies will be delayed in getting to the people who need them. Afera feels it is important to convey the necessity of tapes in many of the products and processes in our lives that enable us to live, heal, work and keep safe. Read Afera’s industry statement on COVID-19, “Adhesive tapes provide the invisible bonds that keep essential industries up and running,” here. Consult a list of critical tape applications in times of COVID-19 here.
In some cases of severe lockdown, such as in France, a specific permit of circulation of workers must be issued by authorities to be carried and presented upon request. Mr. Yiannopoulos indicated that he has “travel documents” which allow him to drive to work.
Afera Member companies have shown themselves to be flexible and resourceful and are digging in for the coming months that business will be disrupted by the effects of the COVID-19 crisis. Webinar participants agreed that they saw some lockdown restrictions leading to commercial disruption lasting at least through the end of May, and that shortages and delays experienced now will worsen in the coming weeks.
“We are not each other’s competitors anymore,” Mr. Smit emphasised. “At the moment, all of our biggest competitor is coronavirus. So if we can help each other, let’s do that.”
Afera’s team has created a dedicated COVID-19 resource page, including practical information, advice and links to other important institutional bodies and stakeholders. Members should check this page regularly for updated material.
According to feedback from Members, Afera’s leadership will continue to monitor industry developments, liaise with other stakeholder associations at the E.U. level and possibly align with other (raw materials, adjacent technologies, etc.) industry positions on critical issues touching infrastructure, cross border transport, raw materials availability, etc.
“Something has happened to us that is uninvited and unexpected, so the Industry reverts to defensive mode, and understandably so,” concluded Mr. Van Loon. “Afera is a great support at times like these, because we can also look at taking this platform—this community—into future-focussed mode, to see where the opportunities lie. There are definitely individual business scales, which Members must keep to themselves, but there are endless collective industry issues to discuss and potentially act on.”
Afera’s next exclusive Webinar on “Navigating the COVID-19 crisis within the adhesive tape value chain” will be held on Thursday, 16 April, 14.00-15.00 CEST. Please register here.
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