Polymatiz CEO: ‘Our key task is to avoid a shortage of masks in Tatarstan’
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, TAIF Group’s enterprises have increased the production of nonwoven fabric to make face masks 40 times
Some companies can’t afford to stop production in the world seized by the coronavirus pandemic and mostly found in self-isolation. Polymatiz — a subsidiary of Nizhnekamskneftekhim, which is part of TAIF Group — is one of four big nonwoven fabric manufacturers in Russia. The assortment covers many spheres: construction, agriculture, cosmetology. TAIF Group’s companies have always worked to make petrochemical products as useful for people as possible. During the pandemic, the enterprise has focused its effort to perform a republican task and increased the production of medical fabrics, which are used to sew masks, single-use scrubs as well as protective suits. The resident of Alabuga SEZ has been working intensively for the second month in a row — non-stop. Despite a hectic schedule and being very busy, Director of the plant Radik Yarullin made time to give an interview to Realnoe Vremya’s journalist.
“To cover the sector of medical products as much as possible”
Mr Yarullin, the president of Tatarstan was in your factory on 25 March. What exactly did you show him? What topical issues in your work did you manage to discuss?
We demonstrated equipment and production capabilities. We told and showed him how products for medical purposes are made, told him about the possibility of expanding the capacity. The president gave us a task due to a deficit of medical masks to agree with buyers of our feedstock to return a part of the manufactured masks to the republic.
When was your enterprise founded? What tasks was it given first?
In 2007, the enterprise became a resident of Alabuga SEZ, in 2008, we completed construction works, start-up and commissioning, in 2009, we entered the market with nonwoven fabric. I have been working since the very first days: I had been working as a technologist and chief technologist for 11 years, since December 2019 I have been the director.
At the dawn of the creation of the enterprise, TAIF Group and Nizhnekamskneftekhim gave us a task: to cover the sector of medical products as much as possible. For this purpose, there were already purchased additional machine tools. In other words, we manufacture the fabric with the key equipment, then add some features in other machine tools. Now we have two machine tools to manufacture nonwoven fabric aimed to make single-use medical clothes, including for surgery and single-use protective jumpsuits.
Does it mean that your medical products are designed not only for masks?
No, not only. They are also designed to make special single-use clothes. There is a shortage of these products now. We were contacted at federal level, we were said there was a shortage of scrubs and single-use protective suits in Russia in general. Here we used this equipment and increased production capacities to make special nonwoven fabric with necessary characteristics.
Are there different types of products?
Yes. Spunbond (Editor’s Note: nonwoven fabric) is used, new characteristics, which are needed in this case, are given to add new layers. The layers are bonded together by glue or heat treatment. For instance, we make a fabric that can protect from liquids and oils but that breathes, that’s to say, air can move through it. Or we make a fabric protected from chemical exposure. At the moment we have expanded the production of nonwoven fabric with necessary characteristics to make medical, including surgical single-use coats as well as protective suits.
How many purchasers of fabric for the masks do you have? How wide is the sales geography?
Usually — before the pandemic — the fabric for medical masks wasn’t in high demand. The demand for masks in itself isn’t high, it depends on the season. There is a rise in consumption during the peak of the flu or acute respiratory disease. This is why it is unprofitable to make big amounts. There are even few lines in Russia that can produce a lot of masks.
In numbers, there are just four enterprises in Russia like ours. We can produce up to 800 tonnes of nonwoven fabric a month, not only for medicine but also construction, agriculture, furniture, cosmetology.
In January 2020, we made just 5 tonnes of nonwoven fabric to make masks. Speaking of the scale in Russia in general, the monthly consumption of fabric for medical single-use masks usually doesn’t exceed 50 tonnes. It is little, and we and our colleagues easily cover such volumes. For reference, half a million masks can be made of a tonne of our nonwoven fabric. We produce a tone in less than an hour, that’s to say, we can daily make fabric for 12 million masks. Now, when demand for medical masks has suddenly risen, many companies in Russia have begun to bring equipment that can make masks. In this respect, we have augmented supplies both in Tatarstan and Russia in general.
The volume of nonwoven fabric production for medical purposes was only 5 tonnes a month just two months ago. How much are you making now?
We have made about 200 tonnes of fabric in the last 3-4 weeks. And all this is designed to make masks only. The homeland has ordered, and we have to do it.
Why do you think there has been such a shortage of masks in Russia? What can we do?
Firstly, there were few enterprises to make masks in the country. It was simply unprofitable for businesses to launch such production. As I already said, demand for the good is not high, it depends on the season. Secondly, there is speculation. Somebody takes advantage of the moment and creates a fuss.
What can we do? A united centre with the state that would take control over companies making masks, regulate prime cost, pricing and other issues is needed. As far as I am concerned, Roskhimzaschita operator was created at federal level. Now its specialists are analysing the situation, studying demand and distributing the order to enterprises making the fabric. Then targeted distribution takes place. The work is done.
12-hour shift without days off
How many people are working in the enterprise? What’s the schedule?
The whole staff of the enterprise together with executives is 136 people. We are working intensively. At the moment we have enough workforce and aren’t planning to hire more staff. We have a two-shift schedule — 12 hours each. The production is non-stop. Now people have to work without days off. The management of the factory is also constantly in the plant. We have a sofa here. Though there is no time to both sleep and eat (laughing).
You have just 136 people. Do you care about your employees?
All accomplishments of the enterprise, its development, quality of products and honest business reputation are a merit of the whole staff. We have a very powerful staff, it is highly qualified workers many of whom have been working here since the first day. And we love, appreciate and care about our specialists. We have a shuttle to get to work and home. The vehicle is cleaned before every trip and after it.
Moreover, every employee clearly knows that he or she must notify us, the employers, in case of the slightest sign of ailment and not start the shift for his or her own and colleagues’ safety. The medical staff takes the workers’ temperature every two hours during a shift. Every person working at Polymatiz is provided with the necessary means of individual protection. All necessary moments to provide protection in the workplace were exercised in detail. It is very important for us to save the staff.
“The load is high, consumption is high too”
How did you manage to increase the medical segment so much?
Thanks to a reduction in volumes of the other range. All our lines were most of the time used to make these products. Talking about the products we make, last year our segments medicine, hygiene and cosmetology accounted for 25-40% of the total amount of products, depending on months. Now we have increased this segment to 80%, while April will likely end at 90-95% of medical and hygiene products.
Production volumes have grown manifolds now. Is there anything stale in the warehouses?
No. Everything we are making now is immediately sold out. Most importantly, all fabric made by our equipment is sold in the domestic market. Moreover, supplies are made directly to producers, circumventing intermediaries and speculators.
Some products accumulate because due to a preliminary order for a big processor we prepare the shipping of a commodity of different colour and features, in rolls varying in width and packaging. It takes some time to prepare it considering resetting of the equipment. Answering your question, I can confidently claim that the products don’t lay stale. The load is high, consumption is high too.
Who are your key consumers? Has this list significantly changed now?
We aren’t monitoring how the pool of clients has increased and how it is changing these days, to be honest. I can certainly say that new clients are appearing almost every day — those who are setting up mask production. Zdravmedtekh-Volga Region was and is a big client in medicine. In general the number of clients is growing day after day.
“We aren’t trying to make money from the pandemic”
There has been a surge in demand for the specific product now — nonwoven fabric for medical masks. Has Polymatiz raised the price for it?
The average price for our nonwoven fabric has remained at the previous level. We aren’t trying to make money from the pandemic but keep to honestly do our job expanding production capacities of products that all Russia is needing. It is a principled stance of our company and the management of the Group in general: not to make money from the situation but put as much effort as possible to reduce the risk. Moreover, I will repeat that we were set a goal — to work directly with mask producers excluding intermediaries and speculators from the chain.
The head engineer of Polymatiz offered to sell your fabric in linear metres in pharmacies so that people can buy it and sew masks at home. Has this initiative been undertaken?
Yes, indeed, our chief engineer made such a proposal. We considered it as a temporary solution to reduce the tension due to the shortage of masks. It was supposed that our fabricated parts, semi-finished products cut to the necessary width could be supplied to chain stores, petrol stations, pharmacies and sold in metres. We are ready to organise such supplies too.
Does it mean that it isn’t a roll of fabric but templates that just need to be sewed at home?
No, and yes. It is a roll of nonwoven fabric 600 mm in diameter and 17-20 cm in width like a standard medical mask. And when this roll is supplied somewhere, people can come, purchase several metres for a low price and sew as many masks as they need at home. But it turned out this initiative couldn’t be undertaken in pharmacies. The pharmaceutical industry has strict rules. However, numerous charity funds backed the idea: they are purchasing the fabric, handing it out to volunteers, students, and they start to sew and hand them out for free. There is an effect.
We are ready to supply even small volumes
You have just recently provided rolls of the fabric to Nizhnekamsk and the Kamskiye Polyany psychoneurological care facility…
It isn’t the only case. Every day we ship some fabric. Nizhnekamskneftekhim, which is part of TAIF Group, has now started to sew masks from our fabric. They are purchasing it from us. They have begun to sew masks and are handing them out.
Are there a lot of such initiatives in Tatarstan now?
Indeed, there are a lot of such initiatives. There is a problem: usually, we work with big lots, we ship products to wholesale purchasers, while now a lot is circulating for small companies. It is difficult, though we are selling the fabric to everybody who needs huge volumes — garment factories, homes for the disabled and so on. It is a forced but necessary measure.
Big manufacturers are now sewing and handing out masks. What big manufacturers are you working with in Tatarstan?
Zdravmedtekh-Volga Region is one of those big companies that work in medicine and hygiene. They are expanding capacities, while we are shipping them directly. In general there are a lot of different companies, large and small that have either begun or will begin making masks from the middle of April. I have heard that there are such companies in Naberezhnye Chelny, Kazan, Nizhnekamsk. Mr Minnikhanov gave us a task — to provide the republic with masks, and we will do our best to provide such initiatives with the fabric. We are waiting for these lines to start operating, contracts are signed beforehand. We are in constant contact.
You have said that many enterprises are now purchasing equipment to start sewing masks. Has Polymatiz been told to launch such production too?
Yes. Moreover, it isn’t plans and talks anymore but specific decisions. Nizhnekamskneftekhim PJSC has purchased special equipment to make medical masks. Equipment for such lines is supplied from China. Given the pandemic, demand for such lines has gone up, prices have gone up too.
Queues have been formed, companies are waiting for their equipment to be made and shipped. But thanks to the help of the government of the Republic of Tatarstan, the management of Nizhnekamskneftekhim PJSC and TAIF Group, the issue managed to be resolved, and the much-needed equipment for the republic is already on its way to Tatarstan. It is expected to arrive very soon. After assembly and start-up of the automated line, which will take place as soon as possible, this production will operate intensively to provide thousands of workers of Nizhnekamskneftekhim, TAIF Group in general and all people who need medical masks with means of individual protection.
Of course, we will keep expanding production of the fabric to make masks too. We can and are ready to supply any amounts of it. Our main task is to make sure there is no shortage of masks in Tatarstan.
Our fabric meets the strictest requirements
Fabric for medical masks. The very word “medicine” means that there are special requirements for this fabric. What’s the certification like? When was it?
We obtained the certificates of conformity for the finished product when we just began to produce this nonwoven fabric. There is constant inspection control over the conformity with all the requirements established by the certification centre. We regularly update the certificate. The latest update was on 25 December 2019. There were also obtained declarations of conformity of products with requirements of the Technical Regulations of the Customs Union as of 21 February 2020.
“The situation is under constant control like a strained nerve”
The volumes have increased many times: from 5 tonnes to hundreds of tones. Consequently, the demand for feedstock has risen too. Is there enough feedstock?
There isn’t a deficit. The main feedstock — polypropylene — is delivered to us from Nizhnekamskneftekhim PJSC, which is part of TAIF Group. There are feedstock-related issues to make melt-blown fabric. It is a polymer made by high-velocity air isn’t so far made in Russia, it has to be purchased abroad.
We place orders to the next supplies beforehand and make stock. There isn’t a deficit at the moment. But there are risks that the feedstock can get stuck somewhere during shipping on the border. We are working to avoid downtime.
Does it mean you have to calculate everything in advance?
Yes. Now we have ordered some feedstock for melt-blown fabric in Poland. The freight was to arrive in early April, but difficulties arose. Now we are waiting for the delivery next week, on 12-14 April. It is important that all difficult moments are now controlled at the top: the officials of Nizhnekamskneftekhim, TAIF, the Ministry of Industry and Trade of Tatarstan and Ministry of Industry of Russia. They are ready to help with any issues. For instance, they can help accelerate the customs registration to provide the plant with feedstock non-stop. Contacts are forged at all levels, and the situation is constantly under control like a strained nerve.
Now you are on a war footing. This took your production a few days. When the situation normalises, how soon will you be able to switch to the operation in a usual, peaceful regime?
We don’t find it hard to switch to other dimensions and other fabrics, there won’t be needed any special resetting. Unfortunately, some of our permanent clients have to wait for shipping now, because we have had to reduce other segments. But our consumers know that Polymatiz has always tasked itself with being a reliable supplier and understand the current situation. Moreover, retail sales of construction, agrarian and other non-medical fabrics have temporarily reduced.
When the pandemic ends, we will reduce medical and cosmetological areas to necessary volumes and increase other sectors. We don’t see any difficulty here. We have a very mobile plant that can quickly reply to market demand.