Gaston College gets the green light to build state-of-the-art Fiber Innovation Center

Fiber Innovations Center, Gaston College
Project stakeholders are currently considering two options for the Fiber Innovations Center – a 40,000 square foot plan and 22,000 square foot plan. The smaller floor plan would focus exclusively on fiber innovation and development, with the larger plan bringing yarn-related development under the same roof. Photo courtesy of Gaston College, Textile Technology Center

In 1941, the North Carolina Textile School was established by an act of legislation, and it officially opened in 1943 with a series of classes including weaving, spinning, knitting and equipment maintenance. The school awarded its first diploma in 1945, and it established the first Associate Degree Program in Textile Manufacturing Technology in 1971.

In 2005, what had come by then to be known as the Textile Technology Center (TTC) was transferred to Gaston College, and a 14-member advisory board was established. Per the statute of the North Carolina General Assembly initiating the transfer, the TTC’s mission was defined as: “Develop a world-class workforce for the textile industry in North Carolina; support the textile industry by identifying problems confronting the industry and assisting the industry in solving them; garner support from the textile industry for the work of the center; and serve as a statewide center of excellence that serves all components of the textile industry.”

A new milestone

The latest benchmark in the long history of the TTC is about to become reality. The Gaston County Board of Commissioners and Gaston College are working to transfer $5.3 million in funding to the college for the addition of a new Fiber Innovation Center on Gaston College’s Kimbrell Campus in Belmont, North Carolina.

The new Fiber Innovation Center (FIC) will be a facility expansion of the Kimbrell Campus and serve as a resource of the Manufacturing & Textile Innovation Network (MTIN), a partnership between Gaston College’s Textile Technology Center and Catawba Valley Community College’s Manufacturing Solutions Center.

The MTIN partnership, announced on December 15, 2020, was formed to develop a regional workforce focused on advanced materials and textile testing development. The collaboration also affords better support to each center’s clients in the textile and manufacturing industries, expands services to related industries and provides opportunities for research and development.

Upon completion, The FIC will be the only facility in North America open to industry that will house the entire range of advanced fiber development capabilities where scientists can start with an idea, move to small-scale trials and work up to a commercially viable product ready for production. Through growing local and regional support from the textile industry, the college expects the Kimbrell Campus will become a world-class facility for fiber technology development.

How did the FIC come to be?

“The industry has continued to tell us that they don’t have a place in the U.S. to play with polymers as they develop new fibers,” said Sam Buff, director of the TTC. “Our current fiber development lab is located in a rental property a few miles from the Kimbrell Campus, and building a new fiber development lab has been on the master plan for Gaston College for years.”

However, funding challenges and other college priorities prevented the project from moving forward – that is until a series of recent events brought the FIC to fruition.

The first event was the PPE shortage experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We ran out of inventory, and we ran out quickly,” said Buff. “This was seen by many as a national security issue. Many manufacturers pivoted to support making PPE in the United States. The TTC supported those efforts in a variety of ways from testing PPE products to becoming part of the supply chain.”

The second event was the appointment of Dr. John Hauser as Gaston College’s new president in June 2020. “Dr. Hauser brought with him a great respect for manufacturing and textiles,” said Buff. “He saw the need to not only support the fight against COVID-19, but to expand our efforts in any way possible.”

Finally, an act of legislation played a key role, with the North Carolina Legislature passing Bill 1105 Coronavirus Relief Act 3.0, providing $5.3 million in funding to the TTC, specifically for the construction of an incubator and extrusion center for advanced fibers.

Two options being considered

Dr. Hauser has been working closely with county commissioners and has selected an architect for the FIC. Speaking before commissioners on January 26, he showed two optional preliminary floor plans of 40,000 square feet and 22,000 square feet. Also, an exterior site plan showing the location of the new building on the Kimbrell Campus and an exterior concept design.

Upon completion, The Fiber Innovation Center will be the only facility in North America open to industry that will house the entire range of advanced fiber development capabilities where scientists can start with an idea, move to small-scale trials and work up to a commercially viable product ready for production.

“We first envisioned a Fiber Innovation Center that focused heavily on fiber development,” said Buff. “The smaller version of the FIC would do just that. It would allow us to move from the rented space to a state-of-the-art facility on the Kimbrell Campus. That building would be solely dedicated to the development of innovative fibers.”

Upon further review and receiving feedback from board members and industry stakeholders, Buff said the second option for a larger facility has been popular, as it would allow for expansion of yarn development capabilities all under one roof. “There are a lot of discussions taking place at the moment,” said Buff. “I am sure that we will share a press release once the final decisions are made.

Industry involvement

Parkdale Mills, a leading manufacturer of spun yarns based in Gastonia, North Carolina, has been a strong advocate of the TTC for many years, and the company is lending strategic support on the FIC project.

“We have started initial design meetings with the architect with the involvement of executives at Parkdale Mills, one of the Textile Technology Center’s vital partners and clients,” said Dr. Hauser.

“I engaged Parkdale early in the project and they have been strategically involved with the initial concept design of this facility that will transform the Kimbrell Campus to a world-class Fiber Innovation Center. At the same time, we were developing training and workforce development programs that will complement the full array of services at the Kimbrell Campus.”

Parkdale is not the only industry player supporting the development of the FIC. “There are many companies involved in providing the TTC feedback on what the industry needs and would like to see in a state-of-the-art FIC,” said Buff. “We have an active TTC advisory board and foundation board that is engaged with industry stakeholders. I expect to see more engagement from corporate entities moving forward. I also expect to be engaged with high schools, colleges, universities, small and mid-sized companies and military supply chain-related businesses.”

FIC programs

Once it is up and running, the FIC will provide a state-of-the-art facility to develop and test advanced fibers for products such as PPE, smart textiles for the defense sector, and other proprietary products developed by clients of the MTIN.

There will also be a variety of educational opportunities offered at the FIC, including:

  • Associate in Applied Science in Textile Technology – 2-year degree
  • Associate in Applied Science in Cybersecurity – 2-year degree
  • Career Now Program – AAS in Textile Technology and Cybersecurity courses for high school students
  • Apprenticeship 321 – Textile Technology Technician Program for students earning apprenticeship hours with industry and college credits toward AAS in Textile Technology
  • STEM courses for traditional college students and high school students
  • Textile robotics and automation simulation center for Textile Academy – a short-term training program

In additon, an on-site dedicated full-service lab will support development and small-scale production efforts. “This innovation ecosystem is ideal for entrepreneurs, equipping creatives with viable resources and opportunities to successfully start and maintain their own business,” said Buff.

FIC technology capabilities will include:

  • Fiber Extrusion – batch reactor, pelletizer, one-shot lab scale extruder, viscosity tester, melt flow tester, small scale extruder, cutting/crimping line, drawing line, false-twist texturing, air-jet texturing and covering
  • Yarn Formation – opening and cleaning line, blending, short and long staple cards, combing, drawing, roving, ring spinning, compact ring spinning, Siro spinning, open-end spinning, vortex spinning, winding, braiding and twisting
  • Lab Support – polymer development, dyeing & finishing, analytical chemistry, physical testing and microscopy

Next steps

The State of North Carolina has established a stringent set of guidelines to help navigate the FIC project through the building design and construction process. The current expectation is that the FIC will be completed by early 2022. “We should have a more defined date once the construction bids are awarded,” said Buff.