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R&D for everyone

January 1st, 2016 / By: / Advanced Textiles, Markets

The center’s extrusion lab creates fiber from raw materials and can produce continuous filament and staple filament. Photos: Gaston College Textile Technology Center.
The center’s extrusion lab creates fiber from raw materials and can produce continuous filament and staple filament. Photos: Gaston College Textile Technology Center.

Gaston College Textile Technology Center offers its equipment and expertise for hire.

Autocoro, MDTA Rotorring, Spectraflash, Statimat. If you don’t have one of these, know how to operate one or even know what it does, don’t feel bad. That’s why there’s a place like Gaston College Textile Technology Center in Belmont, N.C. The facility has all of the foregoing—and quite a bit more.

More importantly, they’re at your disposal—both the equipment and the experts to operate them to your benefit. The 50,000-square-foot facility houses extrusion, yarn formation, fabric formation, dyeing and finishing, analytical chemistry, physical testing, microscopy and fabric labs.

“We work with anyone from individual entrepreneurs to multinational corporations,” says Sam Buff, the center’s director. “First, there is the person that has the idea but no concept of how to advance it, and he or she certainly doesn’t have the equipment or know-how.

“Next are startup companies. Maybe they have a little knowledge; but, again, they don’t have the facilities or expertise in-house. Then there are small businesses that are in operation that may not have the budgets to have their own R&D facilities in-house. Many of our customers are larger companies that recognize the advantage of using us and not having to staff an entire department for development work.”

The challenge for what Buff calls “the Duponts and Nikes of the world” is finding job candidates with industry experience in product development. That’s why even they outsource work to the center.

“It’s hard to put together the talent that we have in one spot,” Buff asserts about his 31-member staff. “There are so many different processes in the textile center. Sure, you might be able to find one or two experts, but the thing that makes us unique is that we have so many experts representing a broad range of process areas under one roof.”

Focused expertise

Although the center offers a vast array of services from polymer to chip to fiber to fabric, Buff zeroes in on three core elements: product development, testing and training.

“A lot of companies need product development help,” he says, referencing a contraction in the domestic textile industry from operations moving offshore. “A lot of expertise left the industry and didn’t come back, and the experts that stayed are aging, so there’s a vacuum of knowledge.

“Our business is constantly changing and has changed significantly in the past five years,” he continues. “Historically, we concentrated on fibers and yarns. We slowly added equipment for fabric formation, which helped us focus more on servicing weavers and knitters. Then we added a dyeing and finishing lab.”

In other words, Buff says, the center has swum “upstream” from servicing mostly the pre-cut-and-sew level to helping end-product manufacturers.

“In the last year or two, we started working with more and more brands, and those brands produce anything you can think of, textile-wise.”

One local client is EntoGenetics, headed by David Brigham, who implanted genes from a spider into silkworms to create a fiber with stronger, spiderweb-like properties. The textile center put that fiber into a fabric to test it ballistically for use in soldiers’ undergarments.

Another client shipped trash (primarily plastic) from Haiti to the United States, where the center ground it, cleaned it, melted and extruded it into a fiber, and then put that fiber into fabric that it tested, dyed and finished.

“That company went on to commercialize that process, and today they are bringing in plastic bottles from Haiti and making them into bags, garments and accessories,” Buff says.

The CSM Ring Spinning Frame is capable of producing a wide range of yarn counts. It requires a minimum 5-pound sample.
The CSM Ring Spinning Frame is capable of producing a wide range of yarn counts. It requires a minimum 5-pound sample.

Equipped and adventurous

Clients come from throughout the United States, Canada, Europe and as far away as India. They’re looking for someone with specialized equipment that they don’t have for one reason or another.

Certainly one reason is the price of that equipment.

“Yarn-testing equipment manufacturers sell state-of-the-art equipment that tells you everything you ever wanted to know about yarn characteristics. One of those testers costs $350,000, and most people won’t buy one; there’s a suite of testers that you need for a yarn-spinning facility,” Buff offers as an example. “It could cost $1 million to $1.5 million. A small company could never afford that.”

Another reason is the scale of the equipment. The textile center has a weaving lab that can make small samples. “In the industry, to make a prototype, they may have to take a full-size loom out of production to run 40 yards,” Buff says.

Bill Martin, product development specialist, adds another factor into the equation, noting that defect analysis is a big part of what the center does.

“A lot of companies are not set up to have everything in one place to do that type of work. It may take a combination of labs to get the answer you need,” he says.

“The equipment can be unique in some aspects, and you need good people that know how to use it,” Buff says. “I can’t focus on the people enough. There are labs that will help you develop products if they fall within a certain range. The staff here is willing to push the edge, the tolerance that the equipment is set up to run. They have an adventurous spirit about them. So many labs will constrict you.”

Depending on their goals, clients may need to supply a sample as small as 10 grams or as much as 500 pounds. But there’s one thing they all need to provide, Buff says: “They need to be able to communicate a clear vision as to what they’re trying to accomplish.”

The center has strategically decided not to go after certification lab status in order to keep the cost of its services down. But it does run tests to certification testing standards. “This is more of a development-type lab,” Buff says. “People use us for ‘better-or-worse’ testing. They will bring in five ideas and narrow it down to one or two before they invest dollars in more expensive certified labs.

“One of the best descriptors I’ve heard for what we do is this: In the big world of research and development, we are the little ‘R’ and the big ‘D.’ We are really about the hands-on approach to helping somebody prove their concept or idea.”

Janice Kleinschmidt is an experienced writer and editor based in San Diego, Calif.

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