Up front: March 2013

Making a difference

I was born in Burlington, a city whose socks covered feet all around the world. Manufacturing fed my father’s family. His dad was a plumber, but his dad’s dad and brothers built casegoods in a furniture factory and cabinet shops; his mama’s people worked in textile mills and the hosiery plants that made those socks. My mother’s father was an industrial engineer in a Western Electric plant that made parts for guided missiles.

Manufacturing put my hometown on the map, just as it did other Tar Heel towns and cities in the 20th century, and spread its name — through Burlington Industries, once the world’s biggest textile company — around the globe. Back then, this state made a name for itself making things, thanks to people willing to do a lot of hard work for very little pay. But this is a different century, and in many ways, it’s a different world.

We’re still a leader in making things, though. That was brought home in this year’s Emerging Issues Forum, the annual two-day gathering in Raleigh of leaders from business, government, education and nonprofits to discuss important issues the state faces. This year’s forum, for which Business North Carolina was a sponsor, focused on manufacturing. “We carried high ambitions from communities and companies across the state into this year’s event,” says Anita Brown-Graham, director of the Institute of Emerging Issues at N.C. State University. “They called for North Carolina to hit a reset button on our collective understanding about today’s manufacturing and to develop prevailing strategies for capitalizing on the potential growth for the industry sector.”

Manufacturing in North Carolina is not disappearing, as many fear, but it is evolving. Case in point: Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, shared how his team is growing human cells, tissues and organs at his lab in Winston-Salem. In a city long known for manufacturing tobacco products, Atala is manufacturing bladders. A place that gained fame for making underwear could soon be making the skin it covers. No longer can this state focus only on its traditional products, though we remain a leader in manufacturing many of them. It must look to nonwoven textiles, aerospace and aviation, energy and biologics — new, growing sectors.

“With engaged leadership from over 1,000 industry, policy, education, government and community representatives, and another 2,000 participating online, we took some important steps during the forum,” Brown-Graham says. “There is much more to do in the work ahead, however.” North Carolina is the fourth most-productive manufacturing state in the country, but no longer can we rely on a ready, willing workforce of unskilled, low-pay labor. We must embrace the evolution to advanced manufacturing and make the most of our resources in logistics and workforce training. Networks, innovation, technology and entrepreneurship will be keys to continuing our heritage of success and growth in manufacturing. We have a good start, but the rest of the world is just one sockless step behind.

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