The Manufacturing Solutions Center sits next to the Conover Station in Downtown Conover and is the home of a thriving operation, dedicated to solving the problems of manufacturers throughout the world. The Manufacturing Solutions Center works with many companies and individuals, helping with diverse issues including sourcing, prototyping, testing and marketing. MSC is unique in the world in its ability to help new manufacturing start-ups. The Manufacturing Solutions Center was started 23 years ago, and has recently expanded into its new space. This was in part due to a generous grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. Recently, the EDA called upon MSC to host an International tour as part of the Americas Competitiveness Exchange on Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
The Manufacturing Solution Center began as part of Catawba Valley Community College, as a resource for hosiery businesses which are ample in this region. In the years since, MSC has expanded to serve many types of manufacturing businesses, and has extended the range of services they offer, staying abreast of current technologies. The focus of MSC has always been the preservation and creation of jobs, especially in North Carolina. One of the many things that MSC does is connect local businesses with each other, which actively encourages collaboration in the community. MSC also works to stay on the cutting edge-the businesses that turn to them are state of the art, and innovation is commonplace. In the 9 months that the company has been in the new space, over 300 businesses have been assisted.There are 21 full time employees and 12 part time employees, and their jobs are varied. Notably, $30,000,000 in new sales have been generated for businesses working with MSC, creating an impressive 75 to 1 return on investment.
The Manufacturing Solution Center’s new building and accompanying technology was funded in part by a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.
The EDA is a government agency that aims to promote innovation and competitiveness in American regions to foster success in global markets. The foundation focuses on two key things: innovation and regional collaboration. This makes it a natural fit for a partnership with MSC.
The EDA funds 7 investment programs, designed to establish a foundation for sustainable job growth:
- Public Works
- Economic Adjustment
- Partnership Planning
- Trade Adjustment Assistance for Firms
- University Centers
- Research and National Technical Assistance
- Local Technical Assistance
The EDA funds The Americas Competitiveness Exchange on Innovation and Entrepreneurship. This program was started in 2009 and provides participants with the opportunity to tour successful businesses across the United States to learn best practices. This group visited Atlanta and Charlotte, obvious players in the global economy. But the group also visited the Manufacturing Solutions Center in Conover, due to the great innovation and collaboration shown there.
The Manufacturing Solutions Center is large, with ample space for testing and new developments. A large part of the space is dedicated to the incubator program, which provides a temporary space for businesses as they are beginning. This large area served as a meeting hall and dining space for the participants. Many businesses from the region had a presence, with tables set up for MSC’s participants. From 3-D printing to mismatched socks, many manufacturing fields were represented.
Instead of traditional chairs lined up to face the speaker, the MSC had tables arranged, with a leader from a local business at each. This promoted conversation and networking much more so than the tight schedule normally allows. Donuts and coffee were provided as participants chatted with each other, local leaders, business people, and employees of MSC.
The Mayor of Conover, Lee Moritz, welcomed the crowd and spoke of the importance of the Manufacturing Solutions Center. The City of Conover has partnered with MSC, providing funding and encouragement, and the partnership has proved to be fruitful.
Mr. Moritz was elected in 2009, during the height of the recession. The Catawba Valley lost 14,000 jobs that year alone, and a total of 44,000 jobs over several years. This was caused, not by bad decisions at a local level, but by a national trend that sent manufacturing jobs to other countries. About 25% of the manufacturing jobs in the region were lost. This created, among many other problems, a shortfall in city taxes, and Mr. Moritz saw this as a situation he could address. As a mayor, he chose to think outside of the box, and citing the region’s passion for manufacturing, he encouraged a partnership that has continued to develop. He notes that the MSC serves as a catalyst for the entire region.
The Deputy Assistant Secretary of Region Affairs of the US Economic Development Administration, Thomas Guevera, addressed the crowd.
About the Manufacturing Solutions Center, I have one word-’Wow!’”
When a community comes together with a purpose, chances are you’ll have great success.” He praised the Catawba Valley region, saying, “You have great flexibility and confidence, and share a great sense of vision. You aren’t mired in the present. You are focused on where we will be in 10 years. You ask that. Most don’t.”
He also noted that North Carolina has the best barbeque in the nation. He certainly got no arguments from locals.
Next to speak was Shelby Mason. “The Shelbonator” is the CEO of Bootights, one of the Manufacturing Solutions Center’s success stories.
She spoke of her experience starting a business.
I saw a problem. See, my boots were uncomfortable.”
She went on to discuss that her temporary solution was the same as thousands of women: she wore socks with her tights. Then she determined that there was a huge gap in the market she could fill. She set out to create a product that was a hybrid sock and tight. She quickly discovered that the environment at sock mills and hosiery mills are quite different, and no one at either type of mill was interested in speaking to a Californian woman with no experience who had an “idea”. Shelby’s was previously a successful marketer for Disney. This new endeavor was entirely different, but her can do attitude pushed her forward. She found Dan St Louis, Executive Director at MSC, and her vision suddenly became possible. He was able to put her in contact with the right people, teach her the correct language, and generally help her navigate a new world. With the help of MSC, Bootights has become a successful business, and has gained great popularity. Her products were featured on Oprah, Good Morning America, InStyle, Glamour and The View. The products are available at Neiman Marcus, Zappos, and over 600 boutiques.
Shelby warmly welcomed Dan St Louis to the stage.
I don’t even know where I would be without Manufacturing Solutions Center or Dan,” said Shelby.
At the end of the day, no one cares who solves a problem, as long as it’s fixed.”
He invited all to a tour of the facility. There were 13 stations, and at each, an employee explained and demonstrated their jobs and/or the technology:
- Touch Wall-Tony Whitner
- Structural Testing and 3D Modeling-Scott Regenbogen
- Flat Bed Knitting and Incubator Client-Scott McFarland
- Sock Knitting and Prototyping-Rodney Sigmon
- Scanner and Drop Tester-Joshua Young
- Weathering-Jodi Geis
- Antimicrobial Testing-Marcia Curry
- Physical Testing Part One-Monica Wise
- Physical Testing Part Two-Shelisha Rutherford
- Microscopy-Jill McCann
- Flammability-Caroline Winget
- XRF Testing-Kathy Winters
- Entrepreneur Development-Dan St Louis
After the tour, which was lively and full of discussion, the group reconvened for lunch. As an additional networking opportunity, leaders of local businesses joined the participants for lunch. Participants had ample time to talk to business leaders in their field, and they asked many questions that spurred productive conversations.
The following businesses joined in the conversations:
- Neptco Fiber Optic
- United Machine Metal Fabrication
- Timmerman Manufacturing
- Lee Industries
- BSN Medical
- HSM Solutions
- Smart Electric
- Opportunity Threads
- Catawba County EDC
- Burke County EDC
- Alexander Count EDC
- Twin City Knitting
- City of Greensboro
- NanoTech Center
They were also joined by local leaders, including Representative Andy Wells, as well as County Commissioner Kitty Barnes and the Conover City Council.
The event, designed to encourage networking and innovation, was a success. Learn more about MSC here.