Martin: Is North Carolina manufacturing dead?
“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
So said Mark Twain after hearing that his obituary had been published in the New York Journal.
And many of the more than 1,000 people who attended the Emerging Issues Forum last week are saying something similar about the reported death of manufacturing in North Carolina: “Manufacturing is not dead; it is on the upswing in our state.”
Wait a minute. Even the forum’s sponsor, North Carolina State’s Emerging Issues Institute, acknowledges that between 1992 and 2010, manufacturing employment in our state declined by 30.6 percent, leaving fewer than 620,000 manufacturing jobs.
Meanwhile, although the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals, plastics and food processing products is growing rapidly, employment in textiles, furniture, and tobacco manufacturing is down. Maybe not down and out. Maybe not quite dead.
“Manufacturing has a public image problem,” reported the institute.
By showcasing a host of new manufacturing activities, the forum attacked the public image problem and persuaded attendees that there is a manufacturing renaissance in our state.
But the renaissance the forum touted is based on a new model.
For instance, Gart Davis, founder of Durham-based Spoonflower, explained how his manufacturing business makes it “possible for individuals to design, print and sell their own fabric, wallpaper and wall decals.”
So, if you want your own design for a fabric or wallpaper, Spoonflower can manufacture those products, quickly, in small amounts, at a reasonable price.
The process is made possible, according to Spoonflower, by modern digital textile printers, which are large-format inkjet printers modified to run fabric.
If you follow book publishing, Spoonflower is for fabric design and manufacturing as “books on demand” is to the publishing process.
But the modern textile printer, by itself, could not assure Spoonflower’s success. In the old days textile manufacturers, large and small, required a network of expensive support services, including sales representatives, advertising campaigns, factors and bankers.
Spoonflower operates without them.
“We get paid and we keep it all,” Davis told the Emerging Issues audience.
Manufacturing on demand permits Spoonflower to collect from its customers immediately, using on-line payment services like PayPal.
The internet’s social media connects satisfied customers to other fabric users, spreading the word without expensive paid ad campaigns. The company’s webpage (www.spoonflower.com) provides potential customers all they need to place orders. Be careful. If you visit that site, you might find yourself placing an order.
Spoonflower does a healthy export business. Its business model avoids the complexities that discourage some larger manufacturers from exporting. For instance, using Google’s translation program, it communicates directly with potential non-English speaking customers.
And, says Davis, they have learned how to ship a small order to a distant place like Tasmania in Australia for only $2.
Why did Davis pick Durham for Spoonflower? He says the entrepreneurial culture and resources in the Research Triangle area and the help available from N.C. State’s College of Textiles were big factors.
Ongoing research at other universities could lead to new manufacturing businesses. Dr. Anthony Atala, director of Wake Forest’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine, described the processes his team uses to build replacement body parts using as raw materials the patient-recipient’s cells. In the lab, Atala’s team can build replacement blood vessels and bladders. They have their sights on more complicated organs. The lab process is very expensive, but as production is refined and transferred to manufacturers, costs will decline.
The forum’s message was “North Carolina is uniquely positioned to take advantage of these opportunities.”
Why uniquely positioned?
Because of an explosion of research and future researchers on our university campuses, because of the flexible and effective job-training capability of the state’s community colleges, because of co-operative, supportive, and helpful governments at all levels, North Carolina’s manufacturing tradition is far from dead.
D.G. Martin hosts "North Carolina Bookwatch," which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch. Sunday’s guests are Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle.
Bookwatch Classics (programs from earlier years) airs Wednesdays at 11:30 a.m. on UNC-MX, a digital cable system channel (Time Warner #172 or #4.4).
Next week’s guest is Robert Durden author of “Bold Entrepreneur: A Life of James B. Duke.”