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Friday, March 1, 2024

Point taken: The Nonwovens Institute at N.C. State supports many popular products.

In May, there was a textiles conference at N.C. State’s McKimmon Center that included a tour of N.C. State University’s textile education complex at Centennial Campus nearby. We went through the Wilson College of Textiles and The Nonwovens Institute next door. 

As we were taken through the Institute, we saw a lot of testing labs and machinery. All manner of polymers were being melted and spun into fibers and turned into engineered fabrics. Needle-punching machines and water jets were entangling them into webs. 

The U.S. nonwovens industry has been growing; North Carolina has the largest concentration of nonwovens companies in the country, according to the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina. A big factor in the industry’s success has been The Nonwovens Institute, its research, development and testing hub and training partner. You will hear talk about the need for academia and industry to work together to drive economic growth. The Nonwovens Institute is the model for that.

Executive Director Behnam Pourdeyhimi, its leader for more than two decades, is a major reason.

What are nonwovens?  

You may not know the term, but you know nonwovens. Baby wipes, face masks, hygiene products, diapers, Swiffers, Tyvek and more. Mark Snider, who works for INDA, the industry’s trade association in Cary, recalls being at a conference that sent out a team on a break to buy products at local groceries made with nonwovens. 

“And when they came back ­— and they had one 6-foot table set up in the front of the room during the conference — they ended up having to get two more tables, because there were over 300 products. And that was 20 years ago,” says Snider. “It was shocking.”

Another industry conference will be coming to N.C. State at the end of September, co-hosted by INDA and the Institute, bringing in 250 industry representatives and academic researchers. 

When you look at who comes to this conference — Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark, Dow, Cummins, ExxonMobil, names that show up on the list of Nonwoven Institute members — you get some idea of what this is about.

This would have seemed improbable 30 years ago, when Pourdeyhimi and some academic colleagues were trying to get a little research center off the ground.

Pourdeyhimi’s story

Behnam Pourdeyhimi

Pourdeyhimi became interested in nonwovens as an undergraduate in England. After finishing his Ph.D. at the University of Leeds, he came to N.C. State as a research associate in textiles, then went to Cornell University, and
then joined the textiles faculty at the University of Maryland College Park. 

It was in the mid-80s, while at Maryland, that Pourdeyhimi went to a nonwovens trade show in Baltimore. “And I get there, and I see this thriving industry,” he recalls. He also saw Subhash Batra, an N.C. State professor who shared his interest in nonwovens. 

In 1991, Pourdeyhimi got a call from Batra. The National Science Foundation was funding something new, called industry-university cooperative research centers, and was soliciting proposals. Batra wanted to set up a nonwovens center at N.C. State, and having another institution like Maryland participate would help with the feds. It got funded by the NSF, with an assist from the state legislature, a $250,000 appropriation, and industry support.  

That was the start of the Nonwovens Cooperative Research Center. “They had one small lab in the College of Textiles, where Subhash was,” says Pourdeyhimi.  

Pourdeyhimi arrives

By the late 1990s, the center had grown under Batra’s leadership, developing relationships with industry, and was preparing to graduate from NSF funding. Pourdeyhimi, who was at Georgia Tech by that time, was recruited to N.C. State to help the center become self-sustaining. It would need financial support from industry and, particularly, expensive equipment if it was going to continue evolving into a leading R&D, training and testing facility.

Pourdeyhimi focused on talking to companies. He wanted to know what kind of research they wanted. He wanted to learn what they thought his students should be learning, and what kind of training the Institute could be providing the employees of nonwoven companies. He said to the companies: “Ok, now what do we do? What do you need?” 

“We sort of mapped out the needs, and what they look for from us,” he says. “We started building those, one piece by one piece.

“And we had no funding. We had no money. The business model was, ‘Well, we are going to put ourselves to work and really just offer services, and do that, and raise money.’ Machinery companies were willing to offer good discounts, and finance the equipment over multiple years.”

What followed was impressive. INDA’s Snider says the Institute now has “the largest collection of nonwoven equipment in the industry for trial and research purposes.” Pourdeyhimi, he says, is “really remarkable at getting things done.”

In 2002, the Partners SpunMelt Lab was opened with an $8-plus million investment. Analytical facilities were opened at a cost of more than $4 million. In 2003, educational programs, including a graduate certificate in nonwovens, were added.  

In 2008, the Staple Lab opened at a cost of more than $5 million. The Meltblown Lab came in 2010 with a price tag over $7 million. In 2012, LINC, a nonwovens commercialization incubator, was launched. And in 2016, the Institute moved a new, massive spunbond machine into the new, privately developed Center for Technology & Innovation building next to the textiles complex, a $15 million investment to replace the old Partners lab.

“You really have to be compatible with the best that the industry is using today,” says Pourdeyhimi, “because you want to make sure they can test their ideas on something that’s scalable on their machine.”

Tightly focused

The work of the Institute is tightly focused around five pillars. Research is funded by member dues — up to $60,000 a year for the largest companies — and topics are selected by members each year. Workforce training is funded by course fees, and more than 300 industry professionals come in each year. Testing and fabrication is funded by companies, and 200 companies are served annually. 

Companies also pay for the Institute to help them with new product development, which has resulted in more than 80 patents. And the incubator helps bring new technologies to market with short production runs before large-scale investments are required. The testing and product development work done for companies is performed by Institute research staff, not by students or faculty. It is kept confidential. 

The students

The students who take classes and train at the Institute come from a variety of N.C. State schools. “Our students come from everywhere,” says Pourdeyhimi. “If they’re coming from chemical engineering, they’re getting a degree in chemical engineering. But then their research is on nonwovens, and they also have to take the five courses that we have, which gives them a graduate certificate.

“They learn all the basics of the processes, materials and all that. That gives them an edge. So if you take a chemical engineer who’s worked on something else, versus one who’s worked on a lot of our problems, and you’re a nonwoven company, which one are you going to hire?”

He is proud of the Institute’s record of helping its students build  good careers. “When I look at our history, I think before 2000, 3M had never hired from here. I think we have 18 or 19 former students at 3M.

“At Freudenberg Performance Materials, which has facilities in Durham, Raoul Farer, the technology director, and chair of NWI’s executive committee, (says) a large portion of his research team graduated from here.”

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