By Raymond Jones

The Wilson College of Textiles continues to expand its role as a resource to the state’s textile industry.

On July 1, the College became a full-fledged member of the North Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NCMEP). The Partnership utilizes federal program assistance to provide technical and management support to smaller manufacturers across the state. Zeis Textiles Extension (ZTE), one of the College’s units, will directly support NCMEP in its efforts to advance economic development, provide educational and testing services, and promote quality improvement.

NC State has played a critical role in the success of NCMEP since the program was first authorized by the federal government some 25 years ago. The College of Engineering assumed responsibility for administering NCMEP grant funds at that time, using its very own Industry Expansion Solutions (IES) program as the oversight vehicle.

Phil Mintz, executive director of IES, says the new partnership with ZTE is a major win in the state’s efforts to boost its manufacturing sector. 

“NCMEP has been a game changer for North Carolina,” he says. “It provides invaluable aid to existing manufacturers, while also boosting efforts to recruit new ones to the state. ZTE’s involvement in this effort will add tremendous value, given their ability to focus specifically on growth in the textile industry.”

Textiles, of course, have a long history in the state. Melissa Sharp, associate director of ZTE, says the industry reached a peak back in the 1920s, when North Carolina was considered by many to be the very center of the textile manufacturing world. “Some people believe it’s been all downhill since then,” she says, “but this perception is not accurate.”

In a recent podcast posted by NCMEP, Sharp offered the following observation about the state of the industry: “Long gone are the days when the word ‘textile’ referred exclusively to woven fabrics. Some of the most high-tech industries in our state today are involved in textiles, producing everything from vein grafts and electronics, such as batteries and solar cells, to automotive and aerospace components. We’ve also seen exponential growth in the fabrication of personal protective equipment.”

Mintz says NCMEP’s particular niche is aiding manufacturers with fewer than 500 employees. “Large companies tend to have more resources at their disposal. Small manufacturers have limited budgets and are much more reliant on the types of expertise that NCMEP’s partners can bring to bear.”

He explains that if a company undertakes an extended formal commitment with NCMEP, the normal procedure is to pay a fee to help defray the expenses of visiting experts. He adds, however, that his organization takes its public service mission seriously and is not preoccupied with fee-for-service arrangements. 

“Our main goal is to be a trusted advisor,” he says. “We provide a lot of informal assistance, and we do a lot of cheerleading.”

About 50% of the on-call technicians supported by NCMEP are concentrated in Raleigh. The other half are located throughout the state, which makes it easier for them to respond quickly when on-site help is requested. Also, it enables NCMEP’s representatives to go out knocking on doors when they have available time to identify potential new clients for NCMEP services.

Fiona Baxter, associate executive director of IES, shares Melissa Sharp’s optimism regarding the textile industry, and believes the new arrangement with ZTE is a win-win. 

“NCMEP is ideally positioned to promote ZTE to prospective clients in the textile sector. The folks at ZTE, in turn, will have many opportunities to promote the services that NCMEP makes available to other types of enterprises.”

Mintz recognizes that the “alphabet soup” of program names might be a bit confusing for those not involved in economic development. 

“People sometimes look at me cross-eyed when I explain that ZTE is teaming up with IES to improve the capabilities of NCMEP,” he laughs. “But knowing the acronyms is not as significant as understanding the importance of our efforts to preserve North Carolina’s manufacturing base.”

Zeis Textiles Extension was founded by Steve and Frosene Zeis in 2006, in order to support a major expansion of extension services. The Wilson College of Textiles had been successfully operating outreach programs for some 60 years prior to that, in keeping with NC State’s mission as a land grant institution.

NCMEP Members

In addition to IES and the Wilson College of Textiles, current NCMEP members include NC A&T Industrial and Systems Engineering, East Carolina University, University of North Carolina- Charlotte, NC Community College Customized Training Program, the Economic Development Partnership of NC, the Polymers Center of Excellence, the Manufacturing Solutions Center and Hangar6 Prototyping.