Before the coronavirus pandemic, Bruce Vaio, owner of SaniSafe Products, was able to get any sort of product his manufacturing company needed within a matter of days – whether it be plastic, acrylic, or another construction material. But the custom plastics and acrylics product manufacturer is finding such items much more difficult to obtain as demand for them grew in the pandemic’s wake.

“Things started to stretch out,” Vaio said. “Because of our natural supply, we could still get materials – but we were being told by several of our vendors, ‘You’re now looking at three to four weeks’ and then that shifted … to nine to 12 weeks. That’s a long difference.”

Vaio said one vendor even told him it could be as long as 24 to 36 weeks before materials could be delivered. SaniSafe Products went from using a few material suppliers to about 10, he added.

Putting a kink in the supply chain is a sudden demand for acrylic and plastic to create face shields, clear dividers, and Plexiglas windows, Vaio said. According to reports around the country, the price of acrylic has soared 10 percent to 500 percent as retailers and restaurants buy up more acrylic and plastic to use as barriers against the spread of the coronavirus. 

About 80 percent of SaniSafe’s ongoing projects are now coronavirus-related, Vaio said. In the spring, SaniSafe was hired to create and install more than 18,000 clear dividers for H-E-B to help separate customers and employees during the checkout process, he said.

“Typically we could turn products from an idea into a product – or from purchase order to product – in two to three weeks,” Vaio said. “We’re now closer to four to five weeks, and as long as six weeks. Any sort of [material] products that we are bidding on right now, we’re given the caveat that it is supply-sensitive.”

While these issues were especially difficult for local manufacturers during April and May, materials are starting to get a little easier to come by again, said Bill Rafferty, who leads the Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center South-Central Region office based at the Southwest Research Institute. 

Mona Helmy, CEO of local manufacturing company Helmy Associates and Co., said in April and May, some materials such as clear plastics and clear acrylics were marked up as much as 100 percent.

“It was mostly the clear materials,” Helmy said. “The materials being used for face shields and stuff like that.”

Helmy said she prefers to source materials from San Antonio or Texas directly, but the shortage forced her to order materials from outside of the state.

“Today I was requesting quotes on some material and I’m noticing the suppliers are just now not telling me, ‘We’re out. We can’t get it. We have lead times of eight to 10 weeks,’ Helmy said. “They have it available or they can get a hand on it now. So I think this month, things are beginning to look a little bit better.”

The supply chain woes have had effects on local innovators, too. When a group of San Antonio engineers and designers began working on a makeshift ventilator system four months ago to aid seriously ill COVID-19 patients, acrylic was an affordable material ideal to build with. 

“We chose to use acrylic to build the ventilator, which provided many opportunities – it’s normally inexpensive, it’s easy to clean, and it is able to be cut with precision,” said City Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1). In March, Treviño teamed up with engineers at CANopener Labs, Skunkworks SA, and doctors from the UT Health system to design the ventilator

“However [due to] the pandemic, acrylic has become a scarce resource, which has created a delay in us being able to do more prototypes,” he said. 

Acrylic prices range according to color, size, thickness, and shape. 

“It’s crazy, because acrylic sheets [used to] cost $140 and now it’s like $380 a sheet,” said Drue Placette, a cofounder of CANopener Labs.

The current prototype is being tested, but has required material changes because of the changing supply chain and rising cost of acrylic, he said. 

Acrylic isn’t the only snag in the supply chain the team has hit, Placette said. Other materials needed for making the prototype – such as rubbing alcohol, N95 masks, and resin – have seen an increase in demand and price because of the pandemic.

Getting certain chemicals or personal protective equipment for workers has been more difficult, Helmy agreed. Helmy said her company used chemicals to create the face shields, and originally had only purchased enough of these chemicals for one production cycle. 

“The demand was so high, we decided to continue the production runs and I had to acquire more,” she said. “Again, materials in April and May were very, very hard to come by.”

As the market readjusts and settles, a new price balance will emerge, Vaio said.

“It’s really come to be more of a spot market,” he said. “That is very typical for the industry.”

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report. A native San Antonian, she graduated from Texas A&M University in 2016 with a degree in telecommunication media...