Aurora Specialty Textiles Group, Inc., a global leader in coating, dyeing and finishing of woven, non-woven and knit fabrics, has proven that resilience and an innovative spirit can propel a company to new heights, even during one of the most challenging times in the industry’s history.
Aurora was originally founded as a cloth prep facility in Aurora, Illinois in 1883. The company has since evolved and flourished as a domestic manufacturer, transitioning first into textile dyeing and finishing in the 1920s, then into textile coating capabilities in the 1950s.
In 1977, Aurora was purchased by Meridian Industries, Inc., a privately owned manufacturing holding company comprised of five operating entities, including Majilite, Meridian Specialty Yarn Group, Inc., Kleen Test Products Corporation, and Kent Elastomer Products Inc.
The company continued to expand through the following decades and in 2015 invested in a new state-of-the-art, wide-width coating and finishing line and a new facility in Yorkville, Illinois that dramatically expanded their ability to serve customers and new markets.
Today, Aurora offers a complete portfolio of products, including digitally-printable textiles, specialty home products, tape-backing products and technical textiles for a wide variety of industries.
Aurora President Marcia Ayala, who joined Aurora in 2006 and was named president in 2019, is leading the company on a rebranding drive, while also navigating myriad challenges, from rising raw material prices and transportation costs to a global supply chain crisis.
“The company has rebranded itself and really expanded and grown from the point of view of its manufacturing capabilities,” Ayala said.
As part of the rebranding effort, Aurora has engaged heavily on social media channel LinkedIn, posting company news and updates weekly. In addition, Aurora is currently in the process of upgrading its website.
“It has made a difference,” Ayala noted. “We do see that we are getting more inquiries as a result of our presence and engagement on LinkedIn.”
These initiatives have helped Aurora maintain and grow business in an uneven economy roiled by the COVID-19 pandemic that has impacted the entire U.S. manufacturing and retail sectors.
Aurora’s product offerings and services are extensive.
The company’s products cover a wide range of applications, from pressure sensitive tapes with a fabric backing, like gaffer’s and athletic tapes, to digitally printable textile applications such as canvases, banners and window displays and wall coverings. Other applications include power transmission belting, military, abrasives, healthcare and safety, and protective outdoor coverings.
In addition, Aurora has a range of textile finishing capabilities including fabric preparations such as bleaching, scouring, singeing and brushing/vacuuming; dyeing capabilities; pad applications to apply treatments such as fire retardant, water-repellent and anti-microbial; coating capabilities for a range of water-based coatings; and calendering, sanding and converting services.
Navigating the Pandemic, Rising Raw Material Costs and a Global Supply Chain Crisis
“Like many businesses, when the pandemic first hit, our business slowed considerably and was down in 2020,” Ayala said. “While we hunkered down, we continued to manufacture throughout the pandemic. We never shut down.”
Ayala said Aurora had some businesses that were resilient and remained consistent throughout the pandemic, though areas such as athletic tape and gaffer’s tape were impacted as sporting events and entertainment shut down at the height of the pandemic in 2020.
Demand and business rebounded in 2021, but with it came a whole new set of challenges triggered by a global supply chain crisis that has resulted in skyrocketing costs for freight, cargo, raw materials and chemicals.
“Transportation costs alone have doubled and tripled depending on where you are shipping it from,” Ayala said. “The challenge now is mitigating price increases as much as we can and meeting customer demand.”
“We have had to change the way we do business because of rising prices and longer lead times for raw materials. We implemented a longer time frame for forecasting and customer product demands, we are qualifying secondary suppliers, and we are requoting prices frequently due to the volatile and increasing prices of raw materials,” she added. “In some cases, we have been told from our suppliers that prices are only good for 24 hours. It has been going on for the past year and I don’t see any end in sight in the near future.”
But one challenge Aurora has managed to dodge is the labor shortage crisis that has plagued broad swaths of the manufacturing and retail sectors. Aurora employs 73 people and operates in a 120,000 square-foot facility.
“We have had very little turnover, across the board. Most of the turnover has been retirements. I think people enjoy working here and we have a very good culture focused on employee engagement, continuous improvement and input on ideas,” Ayala noted.
Looking ahead, Aurora hopes to expand its offerings to the military market: “We are looking at how we can act as a subcontractor to companies that need fabric finishing or coatings, like durable water repellants or anti-microbial finishes. This is a business that we have already grown, and we are looking to expand it,” she said.
She said government procurement business under the Berry amendment is extremely important and is a topic that will be highlighted on Aurora’s newly designed website.
“Our sweet spot is Berry compliant business where we offer our coatings, bleaching, and finishing services to companies that already have fabric procured, and we can add value,” Ayala said.
“Another area Aurora is exploring, one that would fit well with its core competencies, is outdoor protective fabrics for end products like boat covers and canopies, where it can offer a wide range of polyurethane coatings or water resistance coatings,” she added.
Aurora, a Meridian Industries, Inc. company, is ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 certified, and an industry leader in sustainable manufacturing practices.
The company moved into its state-of-the-art facility in 2015 and has made a significant investment on sustainability upgrades at its plant in Yorkville.
Among the upgrades to Aurora’s new facility, the natural gas and electricity components were designed to significantly reduce its manufacturing carbon footprint.
The move from its original plant in Aurora to the new plant in Yorkville led to a reduction in natural gas and electricity consumption of 4,134 metric tons of CO2. That is the equivalent of 465,178 gallons of gasoline per year or 4,523,015 pounds of coal burned, according to the company.
Over $1 million was invested in new equipment alone, including Variable Speed Drives to adjust motor speed to match demand (to prevent operating equipment running at constant full speeds), new higher efficiency boilers powered by gas, and a Building Automation System (BAS) that allows the company to schedule equipment to turn on and off automatically through a central computer, which helps reduce energy consumption.
As members of the Valley Industrial Association (VIA), which serves manufacturers throughout Northern Illinois, Aurora said it has begun sharing its sustainability management ideas with other manufacturing operations in the region and is helping them to identify ways to save energy and water resources and also reduce waste.
Aurora is a finalist in all six VIA benchmark categories, including innovation, culture, operations, safety, social responsibility and workforce development. The VIA’s “Spark Awards” will be held on April 27.
Ayala said she is very supportive of onshoring more weaving and manufacturing.
“It has been an advantage for us to be a domestic manufacturer, because of the global supply chain crisis and the issues with imported products over the past two years,” she noted. “People are starting to see more value in having domestic suppliers because of reliability, a shorter supply chain and lower costs from a transportation perspective.”
Ayala said her customers also find value in promoting products that they can label as manufactured in the U.S.
She said free trade agreements, such as the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) have been beneficial and led to new exports to Canada, though over 90 percent of Aurora’s products and services are consumed domestically.
“Free trade agreements spur more domestic production of fabrics and yarns,” Ayala said.
Aurora hosted U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai and Congresswoman Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) on a tour of its facility and a roundtable discussion featuring women-led manufacturing firms and union representatives in late August last year. The event was hosted by Ayala and Bruce Pindyck, chairman and CEO of Meridian Industries, Aurora’s parent company.
The visit came at a critical time as Congress was debating the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The bill, which Congress ultimately passed, includes support across Illinois communities for public transit, improvements to roads and bridges, and improved passenger and freight rail and programs.
“The fact that Ambassador Tai was willing to visit small manufacturing companies like ours and talk to us about what is important to us was impressive,” Ayala said.
“When we went on the plant tour, she was interested in our manufacturing capabilities and asked questions about what was impacting our business and how trade policy impacts our business.”
“I asked her if it was typical for a U.S. trade representative to come on a tour of a small company and talk trade policy and she said it was her own innovation and practice—to meet with manufacturers and workers around the country—instead of putting out trade policies without asking industry first how it would impact us,” Ayala said. “That made such an impression.”