North Carolina's Polymers Center of Excellence has grown dramatically since it was founded in 1994, in the nest of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Now the center is trying to spread its wings and see if it can take off on its own.
The budget for the research lab and training center has risen more than 25 percent in two years, to more than $1 million, as the operation has generated more revenues by selling services to the industry and expanding its programs.
``There wasn't any grandiose plan to create what we are,'' said Dennis Hayford, executive director of the center, in Charlotte. ``We have seen the demand and followed the demand.''
PCE began in 1994 with two part-time employees in cramped quarters at the school. The idea was to provide technical and research assistance to the state's burgeoning plastics industry.
Today the center has nine full-time and five part-time staffers, and has moved off campus to a 15,000-square-foot building. The center, now an independent organization, still gets about half of its funding from the state's university system, but it wants to wean itself off that, Hayford said.
Hayford, who took over as interim director in November 2000 and became permanent in March, said the center has tried to beef up its training.
``In a scant year, we've been able to turn [training] around from something that is mediocre to something that is outstanding,'' Hayford said.
``We had been having difficulty connecting to the students - it wasn't the curriculum, but it was the delivery and our understanding of the skill level of our students.''
The group reworked some of the material, brought in a new training director and gave its instructors lessons on appearing on camera, since many of the courses are delivered via television, according to Hayford. As a result, the student evaluations went from fair and poor, to outstanding.
``I see our training becoming a very major contributor to the Southeast,'' Hayford said. ``It's because we don't want to give a degree. We want to teach an employee to be a better employee, a smarter employee.''
The center runs its own training courses and provides instructors for the Plastics Learning Network, the satellite-based training network run by the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. Training is the center's biggest program.
The next-largest area of work for the center is research and development services, particularly for compounding. Companies can hire out the center's extruders and staff, with North Carolina firms getting a discount of up to 20 percent.
Hayford said the center can make plastic compounds, injection mold them into products and then test them in its labs. He sees that research work as increasingly important as the center develops.
``I would hope we would be a more complete R&D facility,'' Hayford said. ``I would hope that we would be bringing more and more polymer business to the state of North Carolina and the Southeast in general, because of the contributions we can make to small business.''