MSC helps enhance products worldwide

In a rear corner of Catawba Valley Community College's East Campus, a group of men and women provides help for people around the world.

The aid comes in many forms — all of which are unique, some of which are unusual.

All of the work is done to help create jobs through successful manufacturing operations in Catawba County and around the globe.

The Manufacturing Solutions Center (MSC) operates as part of CVCC. The center's funding comes 40 percent from state and federal money and 60 percent through fees for testing products for entrepreneurs and companies that need solutions to problems large and small.

"If those companies are more efficient and sell more, they'll create jobs," said Dan St. Louis, MSC's director. "That's the thing about manufacturing. You create a job, you create four or five more jobs because of that product you're making. If they don't create jobs, people don't need us."

Developing better products
MSC opened in 1990 as the Hosiery Technology Center, an operation that mostly tested and problem-solved hosiery products. The company now tests a variety of products for about 300 clients across the nation, St. Louis said.

"We've had folks from every continent except Antarctica in here in the past six months," he said.

Clients include LL Bean, New Balance, Rubbermaid, Hanes and Costco. In recent months, Nike and UnderArmour have trafficked MSC for tests on their products.

The 18 full-time and 10 part-time MSC employees conduct a variety of experiments and tests that many in Catawba County are unaware of, St. Louis said.

Workers build plastic prototypes for water filter pitchers and simple wrenches.

They operate a machine that repetitively drops products such as furniture or harnesses from a certain height to test how the products hold up against wear and tear.

"We can really splinter things," St. Louis said.

MSC employees have tested materials for Indian military uniforms, filtration systems for people who drink stream water in Africa and hotel mattress covers designed to thwart bed bugs.

MSC has also tested materials that military forces used for cloaking devices, said Rodney Sigmon, who works in prototyping, research and development at MSC.

"You could put your cell phone down and lay this material over it, and your cell signal will disappear," Sigmon said.

Sigmon also works with computer technology that helps companies determine what materials and colors to use for a variety of clothing garments.

In the next several months, MSC expects to possess equipment that will allow workers to scan someone's body, enter that person's dimensions and then print off a manufactured, wearable garment.

"That's a different level," St. Louis said.

"It'll save people a lot of time and trouble on prototyping," Sigmon added.

And that's the whole point of what MSC wants to accomplish, St. Louis said.

"We're just trying to push people along," he said. "We tell people not to send things here unless you want to know the truth."

Jill McCann and other MSC employees utilize a variety of equipment to help discover truths about issues with products. McCann uses a microscope that can magnify an object 7,000 times its size and produce 3-D images. That's the kind of technology she used to determine that the threads on a hotel's mattress covers were strong enough to stop bed bugs from penetrating the material.

"A picture's worth a thousand words," she said. "If you can send (a company) a picture of their product, you can tell a lot. We have a lot of knowledge at this center. We have people from all different backgrounds."

All of MSC's employees, however, come from manufacturing backgrounds, which St. Louis said helps the organization understand the needs of its clients.

Attracting more workers
MSC will soon move into a new 30,000-square-foot center at Conover Station.

The larger building will give the company's employees more space for testing products, but it will also provide an opportunity for MSC to extend an interest in manufacturing to younger generations.

"I want kids coming through, people coming through the center to see what we do, to see manufacturing going on and cool things about manufacturing," St. Louis said.

All of MSC's work has been possible thanks to support from university research centers, commerce groups, government organizations and other testing labs. Those partners help MSC help companies solve problems with products, with the ultimate goals of improved manufacturing efficiency, quality and sales, St. Louis said.

MSC workers determine lead contents of products using a testing gun, they determine how many pounds of force a chair or couch can withstand, and they test dark socks to see if they fade onto lighter-colored materials, among other experiments.

St. Louis said he wants to use touch screens at the new MSC facility in Conover to show such projects to children and young adults to attract them into manufacturing careers.

"We've got some tremendous skills in this area," St. Louis said. "A lot of the kids want to stay in this area. We've got to give them something to do. We've got to make manufacturing cool."