I went to Conover in Catawba County recently to visit the Manufacturing Solutions Center. It was called the Hosiery Technology Center when it started in 1990. The center helps companies develop innovative textile and apparel products, but it also works with furniture companies and other manufacturers.
It is part of Catawba Valley Community College in Hickory. The MSC started there, but since 2012, it has been in Conover, about four miles away, where the city built a building downtown. A few months ago, a second building opened up next door.
The MSC, with a staff of 25, offers workforce training, testing, prototyping and research and development. Over a 10-year stretch, it served 973 textile, furniture and other customers in North Carolina, and more than 3,200 nationwide. If you help a Tennessee company, they may buy North Carolina yarn, or get packaging done here.
In a recent, roughly three and a half year period, the center helped create or retain 234 jobs, $24 million in sales, and $1.3 million in cost savings over 36 projects evaluated by the North Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership.
The center is led by Jeff Neuville, a long-time Catawba County resident who grew up in the apparel industry. Neuville Industries was founded in the early 1950s in New York. In 1970, it started manufacturing socks in Hildebran, on the Burke County side of Hickory, for national brands. Neuville succeeded his father as CEO in 1999. Neuville Industries was sold to International Legwear Group in 2003, a private equity outfit. By 2011, most of the jobs were gone, part of a wave of textile and apparel closings.
After the sale, Neuville stayed for a while, then became a consultant. In 2011, he joined the Small Business Center at the community college and became director the following year. He had that post for a decade before joining the MSC in June 2022.
Neuville Industries had been a center customer. “Some of the machines were starting to be more automated,” he says. In my tour of of the center, I watched a circular knitting machine making socks. When Neuville ran the family business, “We had a whole department that was sewing toes onto socks. Now, the knitting machine will actually do that.”
Automation and foreign competition took a toll on the textile, apparel and furniture companies that dominated the four-county Hickory metropolitan statistical area in 1990. More than half the workforce was employed in manufacturing, nearly 84,000 people.
Manufacturing is still important in the region, with nearly 42,000 jobs that represent 27% of the area’s employment, triple the national average.
“Our mission is to support U.S. manufacturing,” says Neuville, “and retain U.S. manufacturing jobs.”
The first building
The center’s first building in downtown’s Conover Station complex was a 30,000-square-foot facility. The testing, prototyping and training has shared space with the center’s 10,000-square foot manufacturing incubator, where, as Neuville put it, four companies “were crammed in there like sardines.”
“But they really wanted to stay in our ecosystem and wait for this [new] building to be completed so they could stay in the ecosystem.”
“We really have what we think is an ecosystem here, where under one roof, they get product development assistance. They get testing assistance. We provide technical support. We have shared equipment that they have access to that allows them to get started much more quickly, with a lot less capital expense than they would otherwise. It’s a good situation for startups.”
The new building
The new building, a few hundred feet across a road from the existing one, opened up in March, 75,000 square feet. At the same time, the original building was renovated for a new personal protective equipment lab, and got new equipment and additional lab space. Both projects were funded with $9 million from the legislature and $500,000 from the college. The new building was also a private-public partnership. The companies that were in the original building moved over into 45,000 square feet and rent from Whiskbroom, a private investment group co-owned by Monroe businessman Ingram Walters. That has opened up space in the first building for new incubator companies.
Importance of testing
The center has evolved as industry and retailer needs have changed. An example is the center’s testing operations, which started in 2000.
“My company sold to the Walmarts and Targets of the world,” says Neuville, and they “were starting to require fiber testing before they would let anything in their stores . . . flammability testing, and fit testing.”
The long-time, original director of the center, Dan St. Louis, worked with manufacturers and retailers to identify the appropriate testing and help create many of the standards that are in place today for hosiery, says Neuville. If an article of clothing was supposed to be 80% cotton and 20% nylon, how could that be verified through testing? What was the best way to measure the fit of a sock? The center helped to standardize that.
Companies that are trying to develop new products need short runs to see if their ideas can actually be produced and to have something to take around. Manufacturers aren’t, mostly, big on short runs.
“So we’re really the go-to organization . . . if you’re doing that product development work, trying to come up with samples that you can start showing to customers, that’s really our sweet spot,” says Neuville. “We try to get it to a point where it’s a finished product. You’ve got your specs, so you can give it to that manufacturer, so they can go into production and avoid a lot of that product development.”
If a customer wants to test how a new product holds up outdoors, the MSC has equipment that can simulate sunlight over a period of time. It has a rooftop weathering station. The furniture testing area is noisy, with machines that are the mechanical equivalent of my grandchildren jumping up and down on a bed or sofa, for hours.
One of the companies testing in the new building when I was visiting was Hickory’s Sherrill Furniture. There are a half-dozen large furniture manufacturers with 500 to 1,000 employees operating in the region, and Sherrill is one of them.
“They’re extremely accommodating,” says Sherrill’s Kevin Steer. “They have three competitors who could do this, but they’re in New York and Michigan. We have an office that’s 10 minutes away. I can be here onsite all day, testing. I can bring it back the next week if I need to re-engineer it.”
I spent some time talking with Brad Seese, of Nufabrx, which makes wearable wraps infused with over-the-counter pain-relief medication. Nufabrx is one of the companies that moved over to the new building (the other companies at the center are Evolved by Nature, InnovaKnits, and YoU Compression Wear. Nufabrx manufactures yarn and partners with other companies to make its garments. “We’re doing it all in the U.S., most of it within 90 miles of here,” he says.
“We’re able to make things again,” says Seese, a 28-year veteran of the textile industry. “We take people who are knitters, sewers and we’re able to train them to do documentation to an FDA- level of requirement.”
“These are all small companies trying to grow. We can all share one forklift, one wonderful dock door setup with a beautiful ramp, well beyond what a small company could normally have. We don’t have to own our own laundering facility, our own destruction testing. The industrial engineer who does 3-D prototyping can do things for each one of us.”
My tour was conducted by Tony Whitener, the center’s special projects director and the fellow who, in Neuville’s words, “birthed both buildings.” That’s why Whitener was given the honor of wielding the scissors when the ribbon was cut in March.
We walked into a training classroom, where students are taught how to operate things like the circular knitting machines one floor below. There were rows of computers.
“There’s not a knitting machine in here,” says Neuville. “It’s really programming.”
“They go from here down to the shop floor,” adds Whitener, “and they take what they’ve done and see what the results are.”
“Knitting training without a knitting machine to be seen,” says Neuville. “It sort of tells the story.”
The center is helping American entrepreneurs make unique, stylish and high-performing socks. “Where retailers started saying, ‘What’s happening to my sock sales? They’re going down,” Whitener says. “Well, we can tell you. We know exactly what happened to them. It was a whole slew of entrepreneurs that we worked with, collectively. And these entrepreneurs have seen an opening because they didn’t get what they wanted. ‘I’ll just start a business.’”
“‘I’ll go direct to consumer,’” says Neuville.
Back to Whitener: “I’m telling you. They cut the retail out and everybody wins. The consumer wins, that entrepreneur wins. And the manufacturers, they struggled supplying those retailers [who are saying] ‘Cut price. Cut price. Cut price.’ Well, that all goes away because the consumer’s willing to pay the price. It’s not about price to the consumer. They just want a good product. That’s sort of our ecosystem. It’s a bunch of small companies across the country that are doing really well. You just met four of them out there. That’s really our bread and butter.”