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Where Does the Black Rubber for Bushings Come From?

Learn how black rubber bushings for suspension components is made, and how you can ensure you’re choosing the right supplier for bushings, airbags, and more.

Episode 297: Have you ever wondered how they make the black rubber used in bushings, airbags, and other suspension parts? Matthew Perkins, Director of Sales for North America at Mansons, spoke to us at AAPEX 2023. Mansons is a unique company in the heavy-duty industry because they’ve chosen to vertically integrate. Controlling all aspects of its supply chain allows the company to be resistant to the hiccups we’ve seen since the pandemic, such as raw materials shortages and transportation issues.

After the interview at AAPEX, Jamie and Diana further researched rubber production. Join us as we learn the steps involved in rubber production, from raw rubber tree sap to formulation and vulcanization. This discussion about the importance of partnering with reputable companies in the industry offers a goldmine of strategies that will help you choose the best suppliers for your needs and lower your customers’ total cost of operation.

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Transcript

Jamie Irvine:

You are listening to The Heavy Duty Parts Report. I’m your host, Jamie Irvine, and this is the place where we have conversations that empower heavy-duty people.

Welcome to another episode of The Heavy Duty Parts Report. I’m your host, Jamie Irvine, and I’m actually pretty excited about today’s episode. Why? Well, in the past we’ve talked about bushings, we’ve talked about polyurethane, the pros and cons of them. We’ve talked about black rubber, really, when you’re buying bushings for suspension and for your truck and trailer, there really is a time and place for both styles of bushings.

But have you ever given some thought as to where the rubber in the black rubber bushing comes from? I hadn’t really thought about it, and while I was in Las Vegas at AAPEX this fall, I had a chance to talk to someone who not only manufactures the bushings, but also has the farms where they have the orchards that produce the rubber. So we’re going to learn all about that in today’s episode. It’s going to be a great episode.

To help me with that, I not only have our featured guests, but I also have our podcast director Diana Cudmore with me once again. Diana, welcome back to the show.

Diana Cudmore:

Hey, Jamie, how’s it going?

Jamie Irvine:

It’s going well. It’s going well. In preparation for this episode, it was kind of fun to learn about where rubber comes from, so we’re going to talk about that. But before we get into that, maybe you could set up the conversation that we had. Who was our guest? What’s the company?

Diana Cudmore:

So we got to speak with Matthew Perkins. He is the Director of Sales for North America at Manson’s.

Jamie Irvine:

Yeah, Diana, I was very excited when I saw in the list of people that I was going to be interviewing at AAPEX, this company Manson’s, and I found out who they were and what they did. So why don’t we listen in to the first part of that interview and then we’ve got some extra things to talk about, don’t we?

Diana Cudmore:

Yes.

Jamie Irvine:

So we’re at AAPEX in Las Vegas, AAPEX ’23, and we had a chance to stop by the Manson’s booth and to talk to Matthew Perkins. Welcome to The Heavy Duty Parts Report. Very glad to have you here.

Matthew Perkins:

Thanks, Jamie. Glad to be here.

Jamie Irvine:

So admittedly, I’ve sold parts for a long time. I don’t know a lot about your company, so I was excited about the opportunity to introduce our audience to Mattson. So first of all, let’s just talk a little bit about when the company was founded. So 1956.

Matthew Perkins:

Yes, 1956, we’re privately held, based in Mumbai, India, third generation of private owners growing organizations. So global selling into 65 countries globally, focused on tier one OEM and aftermarket solutions.

Jamie Irvine:

Okay. Okay. So a global footprint. You are responsible with just the small part of the world called the US and Canada?

Matthew Perkins:

Yeah, absolutely.

Jamie Irvine:

So how do you take your products to market?

Matthew Perkins:

So really Manson’s is a supplier to the supplier in the US. A lot of the things that we do are behind the scenes and tier one, while we do have an aftermarket presence with our Manson’s brand, it’s really not as pronounced as it is in the rest of the world. So that’s one of our considerations for the future.

Jamie Irvine:

Trying to grow that aftermarket brand. So with the aftermarket, you’ve got your traditional distribution model, you’ve got to get inventory in the hands of the people who need it, the people fixing the trucks and trailers. Most people when they want to manufacture parts, they don’t come to the market and say, hey, we’re not quality. Right.

High quality is always a consideration, especially with work vehicles. So how does your company approach that to try to ensure that the products you’re putting in the hands of customers is that high quality?

Matthew Perkins:

Yeah, so I think a lot of what we’ve done over the years is we’ve learned from the tier one suppliers is they’ve came in and said, hey, we need this to be this and we need the product to be at this level. And so it really helps when they come in and help qualify our labs.

We’re ISO certified, we’re IATF certified, so all of the things that you would expect to see of a tier one supplier, it’s really just about focusing on the little things and being consistent and putting quality in product.

Jamie Irvine:

That’s fantastic. So give our audience a bit of an overview of the types of products we’re talking about.

Matthew Perkins:

Yeah, so our main focus is NDH or rubber noise vibration and harshness products. And then so from there we just vertically integrated.

Diana Cudmore:

So right there, Matthew mentioned that they have a vertically integrated company. Jamie, can you tell me a little bit about what that means?

Jamie Irvine:

Okay. So I think when it comes to these kinds of terms that we use in the industry, they often can mean slightly different things to different people. But typically speaking, we have to think about the way that the supply chain works. So you have manufacturers of products and you start with the OEM, the original equipment manufacturers, and they are the ones that assemble the equipment, but they don’t manufacture every single piece and part that goes on that piece of equipment.

So there are parts manufacturers that are also considered tier one who supply parts to those original equipment manufacturers. And then oftentimes those manufacturers have an aftermarket line or they have products for second and third owners that they distribute, not only, their tier one products will go through the dealership groups and their aftermarket line will go through the aftermarket distributors, people like HDA Truck Pride’s members.

And so you end up with tier one, tier two, you can even have tier three manufacturers, but typically speaking, once you move out of tier one and you get into tier two, tier three manufacturers, these people are only manufacturing products for the aftermarket. They have no real connection to the original equipment manufacturer.

So you can think about it in the terms of in the traditional distribution model, you have a group of manufacturers supplying the original equipment manufacturer, and you have a larger group of manufacturers supplying the dealerships and the distributors for that second, third and fourth owner. And in traditional distribution, those manufacturers did not sell to the end.

So they didn’t sell to the fleet, they didn’t sell to the owner operator, they didn’t sell to the repair shop who was doing repairs for smaller fleets in a local regional area. They only sold to either the manufacturer themselves or their dealership groups or aftermarket distributors. And so you created these steps in the traditional distribution model that took products from the original manufacturer all the way through to the end user.

A vertically integrated company is someone who tries to go from the manufacturing of the product all the way through to selling to the end user, and they eliminate, or at least they have a channel that bypasses the traditional distribution that happens at the dealership level and the distributor level.

Diana Cudmore:

I see. So why would a company want to be vertically integrated?

Jamie Irvine:

Well, every step in the supply chain creates a cost center for the end user. And so if you think about one, two and three steps to get products into the hands of the end user from the manufacturer, everybody has to make a markup to make profit, that inflates the price to the end user.

So if I’m a manufacturer who wants to vertically integrate, one of the things I might be trying to do is I might be trying to maximize my profits while at the same time lowering the cost to the end user. Now, just because a manufacturer talks about being vertically integrated doesn’t mean that they don’t respect the distribution model, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going out into the market and slashing prices.

There are a growing number of manufacturers that are running both of these models concurrently, and they do a lot to manage channel conflict. One of the ways that they do that is that they try to price protect their distribution so that basically whoever the end user chooses the price is going to be relatively the same. But you can imagine for the manufacturer in that scenario, their profit margin is going to be much larger, although the volume is going to be much smaller.

So when they are running these dual channels where they’re going through traditional distribution, they’re selling high volume, low margin to the distributor and they’re selling high margin, low volume to the end user.

Diana Cudmore:

And I would imagine too, Jamie, that for a product that needs to be very high quality and really have super tight tolerances and needs to last forever, especially when you’re looking at something that’s generally made of one raw material like rubber, it would make sense for a company to completely be in control of the entire supply chain from raw material to product essentially. Does that make sense?

Jamie Irvine:

Well, there certainly is an upside to that in that you have very good controls over supply, you have good controls over quality. You’re not dependent on other people to do their part to successfully deliver your product. The downside of that too though, may be that you have increased costs, you have increased infrastructure that is needed and you have to be masters of multiple disciplines.

So I think of other manufacturers who have been on the show like Sampa who has also been a sponsor of our show. They control every aspect of manufacturing. I think the only thing that they don’t manufacture themselves is perhaps a little bit of the hardware, the nuts and bolts, everything else they control.

And there’s big upside to that. For example, during Covid, they were able to maintain inventory levels because they controlled raw material. In the case of Manson’s, they also control raw material. This is a big upside, but again, there’s a cost to this and all of that has to be weighed.

And if you don’t have the discipline and you don’t have people who really have mastery over that discipline, then sometimes it makes sense to partner with someone and assemble components. So these are just decisions that every manufacturer has to make, and there’s definitely pros and cons to both.

Diana Cudmore:

Yeah, that makes perfect sense. And Mansons decided to vertically integrate. So that means they own everything, every part of their supply chain from the literal rubber trees that they get the rubber from all the way up to the product. So let’s hear more about them.

Matthew Perkins:

We genuinely own the plantation that you’re pulling the rubber sap out of the tree. We process that, we formulate our own blends, and then as the years have went on, we’ve went, okay, so we’ve got to do this casting or this fabrication. And so we’ve went and invested into those plants and bought those or grown them ourselves. But so just continuing to vertically integrate. So seven manufacturing facilities, 750 people.

Jamie Irvine:

We’re going to take a quick break to hear from our sponsors. We’ll be right back.

Commercial Break:

This episode of the Heavy Duty Parts report is brought to you by Find It Parts your ultimate destination for heavy-duty truck and trailer parts. Discover a vast range of parts at finditparts.com. Don’t spend hours a day looking for parts. Instead visit finditparts.com and get them right away.

Okay, so we’re back in studio right now, and when you’re recording live on the trade show floor, you do the best that you can, but sometimes you don’t have the time to really go deep on certain aspects of the conversation. Diana, Matthew said that Manson’s owns their own plantations and that’s how they control that part of the manufacturing process.

They actually own the farms that produce the raw materials. So I was really interested in learning more about this and I asked you to do some research. I thought maybe our listeners would be interested as well, what is involved in making rubber?

Diana Cudmore:

I kind of went down the rabbit hole with researching how they make rubber, right? So if you think, you’re a Canadian all about how they make maple syrup, I’m assuming.

Jamie Irvine:

Oh, absolutely. Hey, don’t laugh. I’ve tapped maple trees myself and actually been as a kid, we actually did actually tap the trees and get the maple syrup and so I am aware of it.

Diana Cudmore:

So basically all the stereotypes about Canada are true.

Jamie Irvine:

Oh, absolutely. I’m going to play hockey in a couple minutes.

Diana Cudmore:

So anyway, just like maple syrup, the workers at the rubber plantation, they actually cut the bark and then they collect the sap. And the sap is called latex, right? We’ve all heard of latex gloves, latex balloons. So they collect the sap just like in making maple syrup. And then when they collected enough, they put it into a big vat.

I know that during the pandemic a lot of us made sourdough bread and another one of those trends was making your own cheese. So similar to making cheese, they add an acid into the latex sap and that makes the rubber coagulate just like cheese would coagulate in the way. It’s exactly the same thing. So I thought that was really cool. And again, that process is called coagulation.

Jamie Irvine:

Is it just a called a rubber tree or is there a technical name for it or?

Diana Cudmore:

So it’s actually really cool. There are 2,500 different types of plants and trees that produce latex, but generally they use what’s called the rubber tree. But another thing I didn’t know is that the dandelions in your front yard, hopefully not in your front yard. In your front yard, if you pick them, you’ll notice there’s some white sap, that’s latex too. Isn’t that crazy?

Jamie Irvine:

So I always thought latex was a synthetic product. I didn’t realize it was a natural product. That’s really interesting. So the rubber tree is the common name for it, over 2000 types. That’s crazy. Is the rubber tree native to just India or is it found elsewhere?

Diana Cudmore:

So the common rubber tree is actually native to South America in the Amazon region. But because the climates are similar, rubber trees grow really well in India. And as we said, there’s over 2000 species. So there are other plants that make rubber, but this rubber tree that’s been bred specifically for creating rubber really thrives in India.

Jamie Irvine:

So I can’t imagine that you just get the sap from the tree and then it’s ready to go and be used in a heavy-duty application in a truck or trailer suspension. So what do they do to make the product more able to withstand the demands of heavy duty?

Diana Cudmore:

So the first thing that they do is they make it into black rubber. And they do that by adding black carbon. This strengthens the rubber and that means that it can be used in something like suspension components, bushings, et cetera.

But the really cool thing is back in 1839, a man named Charles Goodyear was playing with some rubber trying to figure out what to do with it, and he dropped it on the hot stove and he realized that the rubber which had then been cooked, turned into a very strong leather like substance.

And that was back in 1839 and that was how the Goodyear Tire Company got started. Now of course, they do this on purpose, they cook the rubber essentially and they make it stronger. And that process is called vulcanization, which is just a really cool name.

Jamie Irvine:

And immediately makes me think of Live, Long and Prosper. But that’s for another conversation and probably a different podcast altogether. Diana, that is truly fascinating. Thank you so much for going deep on that and doing some extra research. And I’m assuming this Goodyear fellow just happened to start a company that made tires and eventually made airbags and other rubber products.

This is really important I think though, to see that when it comes to parts manufacturing, product differentiation is truly a challenging thing to achieve. And I just find it fascinating that here, this company has taken this extra step of investing in plantations and this has really enabled them to truly differentiate themselves. So let’s get back to our conversation with Matthew from Mansons. Yeah, so give me a few of the products where these rubber products end up and how are they used in the industry?

Matthew Perkins:

Yeah, so we’re going to focus on the suspension components. We’re going to focus on engine mounts, transmission mounts. We’re going to focus on cab mounts, kingpins, as well as any type of bracket tree like to hang the suspension as well. We focus on drums, on wheel hubs. I mean it’s just really broad product.

Jamie Irvine:

Right, broad product. When we were going through the supply chain collapse during Covid, that was obviously a very regular subject on our show. How did owning the plantations impact your ability to actually produce product during that time? Was there a difference with your company than some of the others?

Matthew Perkins:

I think so. And I think being an Indian based company versus a Chinese based company, I mean we just seem to be able to continue to produce the product. And so not only produce it but store it, because that’s a big thing too. You have to have inventory. And so with a lot of companies running leaner organizations, not having that availability. For us with a privately held owner, he was able to say, hey, we need to have that investment in inventory and supply the market.

Jamie Irvine:

That makes sense. Well, and anybody wanting to buy these products then can have confidence that you’ll have the inventory and be able to supply. So that’s important.

Diana Cudmore:

So Jamie, Mansons is based in India and we know that there are a lot of companies that are based in China. So for someone who’s trying to decide where they want to buy their suspension components in their bushings, why should they choose an Indian based company like Manson’s over a Chinese based company?

Jamie Irvine:

That’s a pretty complex question and there’s a lot of really strong opinions about this. So let’s just look at some facts. So one, we know that there are heavy tariffs now in place from anybody who’s importing from China.

This dramatically affects cost. There is also the real possibility of geopolitical conflict in Taiwan with China and perhaps with the United States. And so that creates uncertainty. And I’ve been talking to manufacturers in China as well as manufacturers, and I’ve had the opportunity even as late as when we were at AAPEX to talk to manufacturers from China and also people who import and distribute products here in North America.

I think everybody’s pretty nervous about that right now. India is a little bit different, obviously with China we know that they’re a communist country. India is a country that was colonized by Britain, but there is close ties with Britain and the Commonwealth.

And as of the time of this recording, there’s been some indication that India maybe is sitting on the fence as to which superpower they might back in a large scale conflict. We saw them with Russia and Ukraine, they didn’t necessarily jump to supporting the United States and Britain and the commonwealth countries like Canada and Australia, although they haven’t also really opposed them either.

So at least geopolitically for the moment, it does look like India would be a safer bet if you were going to buy products from overseas and what they call offshore. Of course, I think manufacturers need to think very carefully about who they choose to partner with and I think that nearshoring and US manufacturing is always going to be the safest bet, but there’s a lot of costs that comes with that.

So if you are looking to partner with a company, someone who is a reputable company like Manson’s and someone that is India based may be a safer bet over someone from South Asia where the reality sad reality is, is that at least at the time of this recording, the possibility of a geopolitical conflict similar to Ukraine in Taiwan is still a very real possibility.

So we live in dynamic times and we don’t really comment on politics here on this show, but you can’t ignore geopolitical conflicts and issues because they have a significant impact on the supply chain as we’ve seen from history and as even we saw during Covid, right? Once those supply chains start to collapse, for whatever reason, it has a massive impact on us and our economy and our ability to get the products we need to keep trucks and trailers rolling on North American soil.

Diana Cudmore:

Absolutely. Thank you for that insight.

Jamie Irvine:

Alright, let’s get back to our interview with Matthew from Mansons. Let’s talk a little bit about how equipment is changing. A commercial truck, what it was 25 years ago when I came in the business and what it is today is very different. How do you see going forward, your company being able to meet the challenges of the changing equipment?

Matthew Perkins:

Yeah, I think one of the things that we have the luxury of is because we work on the tier one side as well as the aftermarket side, we get to see the original design and then we get to evaluate how a lot of products fail. And so anytime that you get both views, you can really start to take those lessons learned in the OE, plus having that very windshield view. You turn around and you just start to incorporate that type of process into the aftermarket parts.

Jamie Irvine:

And that is something that is, if you’re a remanufacturer, let’s say, you get to do a lot of failure analysis, but you don’t have the benefit of knowing what the tier one originally and what they’re thinking. So you get both sides of that view. That’s something I would say that is a significant difference.

Matthew Perkins:

Absolutely. And you see that in product development, right? You’re looking at it and you’re constantly saying, okay, so what application does this fit? What’s it going to go through and what lessons have been learned through the organization through 65 years that we can apply to these new products going forward?

Jamie Irvine:

So as you think to the future and you want to expand on the aftermarket side, how are you going to support the people who are distributing your product and then those people that they sell to, the backbone of society, our trucking industry.

Matthew Perkins:

So everywhere else in the world, we have our sales teams and warehousing and things like that. In the US because everything that we do is really behind the scenes.

We run a lot leaner ship and so currently we’re out looking for new people to add to the team, adding a product manager, adding a couple sales managers, and just to be able to get closer to those customers because ultimately, as we know, our customers are great, the distributors, the manufacturers, the tier ones, but ultimately it goes down to that fleet level. You’ve got to be able to get out there and service those guys.

Jamie Irvine:

In all the years I sold parts the favorite part of my job. So I started manufacturing, then I went into distribution. So what I really enjoyed was taking manufacturing reps out into the field and being able to talk directly with the fleets. Getting that feedback from ground zero as it were is essential.

Matthew Perkins:

Absolutely. When you ask, hey, what went wrong? Or how did this fail? And you can actually come up with a solution for that. I mean, it just means so much, right? I mean that’s true value in the industry.

Jamie Irvine:

And one of the things that we focus on The Heavy Duty Parts Report a lot is this subject of lowering total cost of operation. So how does your company approach that and help fleets to do that?

Matthew Perkins:

Yeah, so I hate to fall back on the old trust answer, but the reality is it is about quality, right? If you produce a high-quality part and you can lessen the cycles that people need to replace that part, it lasts longer. I mean, it really comes down to that.

Jamie Irvine:

Yeah, absolutely. Well, if people would like to learn more about your company, we have put the link in the show notes, go to Mansons.in, they’re an Indian company, so Mansons.in, links will be in the show notes. Matthew, thank you so much for being on the show. I really appreciate you taking some time. We’re at the trade show, it’s busy and it was really appreciated.

Matthew Perkins:

Hey, I appreciate you stopping by. You guys have a great day.

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