NC State Wilson, ZTE Part of Major DoD Grant to Develop High-Tech Military Textiles
By Devin Steele
The Wilson College of Textiles, including its Zeis Textiles Extension (ZTE), is playing a large, actionable role in supporting the U.S. military with high-tech textile innovations through the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) Defense Manufacturing Community Support Program (DMCSP).
Announced in September 2021 after a competitive selection process, the state of North Carolina was chosen to receive the designation as one of five “Defense Manufacturing Communities” in the nation. Through the designation, NC State’s Industry Expansion Solutions (IES) was awarded one of five grants under the DMCSP, whose purpose is to make long-term investments in critical skills, facilities, workforce development, research and development, and small business support to strengthen the national security innovation base.
The $5 million grant will allow the IES-led Defense Manufacturing Consortia to undertake a five-year, $7.5 million (in total) project in the area of advanced textiles and wearables and to implement a strategy to address immediate ramp-up needs as companies transition out of COVID-19 restricted operations to longer-term technological opportunities. The consortium involves nearly 20 entities across the state, plus other out-of-state government-funded partners such as Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) in Massachusetts and the ARM (Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing) Institute in Pennsylvania.
With the ultimate goal being to support military members’ health and performance with advanced smart textiles and wearable devices, the project also will assist small-to-medium North Carolina-based textile companies. Some of these manufacturers have no experience as military contractors, but Wilson College is working to identify those that could potentially become part of this supply chain. Companies – particularly those based in six Western North Carolina counties that are dense in textile production operations – will become part of an industrial production “innovation ecosystem” being created, according to Melissa Sharp, associate director at ZTE.
“This program will allow ZTE to support our clients’ defense contract work, advance our own development of protective materials and products for military and first responders, provide a model facility for entrepreneurship and education, and drive the adoption of advanced manufacturing techniques that will ensure NC manufacturers are capable of meeting future production demands,” she says.
Strong roots in North Carolina
The “Defense Manufacturing Communities” designation and related grant is a major deal for North Carolina and NC State, says Dr. Fiona Baxter, associate executive director for NC State’s IES and the assistant director of the NC Manufacturing Extension Partnership. After all, she says, the defense industry is the second largest segment of the state’s economy after agriculture, and North Carolina has more textile manufacturers (600+) than any other state.
“The fact that North Carolina has earned this designation shows the confidence the DoD has in the plan that we’ve established to respond to their priorities for soldier systems,” Baxter says. “And the Wilson College of Textiles and its partners are well suited to address our military’s needs in the areas of advanced, innovative smart textiles and wearables through a centralized approach to assess and coordinate manufacturing systems and resources.”
According to Michael Mullins, military segment regional manager at IES and director of NC State’s North Carolina Defense Industry Diversification Initiative (NCDIDI), the program will build upon previous partnership efforts made by the NCDIDI, launched in 2017 with funds from the DoD’s Office of Local Defense Community Cooperation.
Mullins says that gaps in the region – which includes the counties of Catawba, Cleveland, Gaston, Iredell, Montgomery and Rowan – are centered around a lack of awareness, ability or willingness of textile manufacturers with legacy production systems to make technological upgrades that position them for smart and e-textile production in support of the warfighter.
“To address this key gap, the NC DMCSP is coordinating a wide network of partners to build awareness of cutting-edge smart and e-textile technologies, so that textile manufacturers who are agile and ready to diversify can work with manufacturing innovation partners on process and technology planning, at scale,” Mullins says.
Building a strategic roadmap
Though early into the five-year project, faculty and staff of the Wilson College and ZTE are hard at work establishing a strategic roadmap and building a database for the supply chain ecosystem, according to Professor and Textile Technology Program Director Dr. Jess Jur, who is currently on scholarly reassignment as the Director of Ecosystem Technology at AFFOA in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“We are working specifically towards interfacing high-tech textiles and looking at where textiles are going in the future to better enable soldier performance, safety and protection,” says Jur, who is leading the effort in the Wilson College and also heads the Nano-EXtended Textiles (NEXT) research team that is developing smart/e-textile textile platforms. “I can’t think of a better, more noble mission for a particular program in a particular state, with the military and textiles being highly important segments of our communities and our economy.”
Knowing that he would need assistance to create an industry ecosystem to reduce barriers between companies and partners in R&D, production, etc. and enable faster prototyping and manufacturing, Jur asked Associate Professor Kavita Mathur to join the team. “Dr. Mathur is one of the leading experts in digital data processing for textile design,” Jur says.
“We have started by building a very comprehensive, visual and interactive database of the companies, capabilities and technologies already available,” Mathur says. “We know many companies that already are military contractors, but some of the ones who are not registered as such are hard to identify. But with our partners such as the Textile Technology Center at Gaston College and the Manufacturing Solutions Center at Catawba Valley Community College, we are making strides in developing the database and making it more robust.”
She adds: “We will then develop a digital database of textile materials and all of the components that go into diverse military products, then go from there. The ultimate goal is to help us design everything virtually and to connect these supply chain partners in order to advance development and reduce lead times.”
Specific products for development are yet to be identified, but the technology data collection phase is in full force, Jur notes.
“We’re putting that into a decision matrix right now, looking at the whole landscape of different technologies, especially in something that has a broad range of maturity levels of technology for smart textiles that will be ready to be introduced into the soldier systems,” he says. “We’re trying to have a nice diversity within the product ranges and are looking at the challenges of each step of the process to determine the manufacturing readiness level (MRL) in order to plan our systems and development around that.”
Mathur adds that the team is looking at everything from fiber to fabric, including the components that go into military products and even into machinery for the military, noting that the database will be invaluable in identifying the capabilities and capacities of these manufacturing and supply chain partners.
Organizational partners in the DMCSP include:
- NC State State Industry Expansion Solutions (IES)
- NC State Wilson College of Textiles
- Manufacturing & Textile Innovation Network (MTIN) – encompassing the Textile Technology Center at Gaston College and the Manufacturing Solutions Center at Catawba Valley Community College
- North Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NCMEP)
- RTI International (RTI)
- North Carolina Center for Optimizing Military Performance (NC-COMP)
- North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NCA&T)
- Center for Advanced Self-Powered Systems of Integrated Sensors and Technologies (ASSIST)
- Emerging Technology Institute (ETI)
- First Flight Venture Center (FFVC) and Hangar6
- North Carolina Department of Commerce
- North Carolina Military Business Center (NCMBC)
- North Carolina Defense Technology Transition Office (DEFTECH)
- Defense Alliance of North Carolina (DANC)
- North Carolina Defense Industry Diversification Initiative (NCDIDI)
- Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA)
- Manufacturing x Digital (MxD)
- Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM)
About Devin Steele
Devin Steele is founder and publisher of U.S.-based eTextileCommunications.com, The Voice of the U.S. Textile industry, which covers the entire value chain of the textile, apparel and sewn products industry. A graduate of NC State’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences with a degree in English, he has covered the industry for more than 25 years.