Leading a Textile Revival
Science and industry join forces to fuel job growth
NC State's Nonwovens Institute proves that even competitors can work together to foster innovation and improve the economy.
When American Truetzschler opened its doors in Charlotte in 1969, the company was positioned, strategically and geographically, to take advantage of North Carolina's thriving textile industry. By all accounts North Carolina was a textile powerhouse, home to nearly 2,000 firms employing 300,000 workers – more than any other state.
As the North American branch of Trützschler GmbH, a German firm built on a century of innovation, American Truetzschler held a prime place in the industry. For textile companies to succeed, they needed faster, better and more technologically advanced equipment. And that's exactly what American Truetzschler had to offer. At its impressive manufacturing plant, the company designed and built the machines for opening, blending, cleaning and carding cotton and man-made fibers for the spinning and nonwovens industries.
"When we started manufacturing in Charlotte, it was not the most favorable time to bring an equipment manufacturing company to the U.S.," says Detlef Jaekel, the company's vice president. "But we needed to be close to our customers."
It proved to be a wise decision, although the industry itself was headed for difficult times. As American Truetzschler steadily grew, the business landscape was rapidly – and dramatically – changing. Between 1998 and 2003 the North Carolina textile industry lost nearly 65,000 jobs as dozens of mills closed down in the face of global competition and industry consolidation.
Jaekel realized that a small but technologically advanced section of the market called nonwovens offered an amazing opportunity.
"The future is in nonwovens," he predicted.
On Centennial Campus, North Carolina State University's pioneering research park bordering tranquil Lake Raleigh, researchers in the College of Textiles came to the same conclusion in the 1990s. With the leadership of faculty including Dr. Behnam Pourdeyhimi, associate dean for industry research and extension, the university created a research center dedicated to advancing the field. American Truetzschler was quick to join NC State and other textile firms in the public-private partnership.
NC State's Nonwovens Institute is now a model program, proving that academic and industry leaders – even competitors – can work together to foster business innovation and improve the economic climate.
Twice a year, leaders of more than 60 member companies meet at the institute to decide how to allocate more than $2 million to underwrite as many as 30 research projects. This research – much of it carried on at NC State – leads to new processes and innovative fabrics, and help drive economic development throughout the state.
This research has helped companies like American Truetzschler remain in the forefront of the industry, even in a tough economy.
"NC State is one of the very few organizations in the world that has focused on this segment of the industry," says Pourdeyhimi. "We have become a global resource and innovations partner for the industry."
That's a crucial role to play in a complex industry that depends on technology to remain competitive.
Nonwoven fabrics – used in products like baby wipes and coffee filters – are created by combining fibers, pulp, particles, films and chemicals. Manufacturing processes vary by the type of fabric but typically involve the use of heat, water or chemicals to bind the fibers together. Some nonwoven products, like diapers, are disposable while others, like air filters and carpet backing, are more durable. Common nonwoven products include surgical gowns, air filters, upholstery padding, facemasks, insulation, feminine hygiene products, tea bags and disposable clothing.
"The industry is driven by innovation and intellectual property," says Pourdeyhimi. "But the high cost of research and development really puts a strain on companies, especially smaller firms."
That's where the Nonwovens Institute helps. For annual dues of between $5,000 and $50,000 (depending on the size of the company), members get access to the results of the research and an option to license technologies developed by the institute.
In addition, companies can work on specific developments with the faculty, staff and researchers at the institute's state-of-the-art facility – the Nonwovens Cooperative Research Center. The university's experts offer a range of services, from full-blown research projects to product development, process analysis and employee training.
The expansive center operates a polymer laboratory, an imaging laboratory, an analytical laboratory and two pilot facilities for the manufacture of various forms of nonwovens.
The impact of NC State’s work in nonwovens has been dramatic. North Carolina has attracted nearly $700 million in investments from nonwovens companies in the past 10 years as shown in the interactive map below.
View Nonwovens Investments in North Carolina in a larger map.
But the institute's most valuable assets, says Pourdeyhimi, are its graduates. About a dozen students a year complete graduate degrees in fiber and polymer science, chemical and biomolecular engineering and related disciplines offered by NC State. Demand for skilled workers is so high that most are hired by major nonwovens firms before they graduate.
"The content of our course materials comes right out of the research center," Pourdeyhimi explains. "Consistent with the mission of a research extensive university, the knowledge we create becomes the basis for our education – and the engine for the creation of the next generation of products."
The impact of NC State's work in nonwovens has been dramatic. North Carolina has attracted nearly $700 million in investment dollars from nonwovens companies in the past 10 years. Industry powerhouse PGI opted to launch a $40 million expansion of its plant in Mooresville, N.C., noting that cutting-edge research has helped place the state at the center of the intellectual knowledge base for the entire nonwovens industry.
"The nonwovens institute has become a model for industry and academic cooperation," says Bob Dale, PGI senior vice president of research and development. "The institute has developed world-class pilot facilities that enhance both academic and industry research into nonwovens technology. Having these resources in North Carolina enhances the attractiveness of the state as a site for new and expanded operations."
The prospects for further growth are bright. Pourdeyhimi predicts the filtrations market, for products such as air and water filters, will be a $100 billion business by 2020. NC State wants North Carolina to tap the lion's share of that potential.
"The amount of energy we generate is just phenomenal," Pourdeyhimi says of the institute. "This little group at NC State has made a significant impact on this industry."
That's not lost on state and local leaders. Ken Atkins, executive director of Wake County Economic Development, marvels at the potential of the filtrations market.
"As you look at industry clusters, we have two that will be impacted: advanced medical technology and the clean or green technology sector," he says. "This is very big business."
For his part, American Truetzschler's Jaekel remains a strong advocate for the program. He recently attended an event at the Nonwovens Institute to celebrate the installation of new state-of-the-art web formation and bonding equipment on site. The equipment brand? Trützschler, of course.
About the Researcher:
- Nonwovens Institute
- Interactive Map of Nonwovens Investments in NC
- The Future of Textiles Brochure
- Wake County Economic Development - Nonwovens
- Bye-bye, Boo-boos (video)
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