At the Polymers Center of Excellence in University Research Park, officials failure-test flip-flops and blow mold food trays used by prison inmates to see if the plastic wares can be turned into weapons.
The testing is ongoing, according to Renah Snodgrass, a PCE materials engineer interviewed Oct. 17 at the facility.
With nearly 12,200 plastics workers at 280 companies in the Charlotte region, PCE has plenty of potential customers to keep it busy - even if the work isn't always quite as unusual.
Reaching beyond the Carolinas, PCE worked with manufacturer Tennessee Mat Co. Inc. of Nashville, easing it into injection molding PVC mats.
Tennessee Mat now handles the injection molding out of a plant in Nashville, Vice President of manufacturing Mike Franklin said in an Oct. 24 telephone interview.
``Pretty soon, we'll be in thermoforming,'' said Dennis Hayford, PCE's executive director. ``We have the machinery and the talent. We have to find the time.''
Its heartache has been injection molding, because it doesn't have a machine. But officials brag about relationships like the one with antimicrobial additives firm Microban of Huntersville, N.C. PCE bought an extruder and became ISO 9001-certified to work with Microban, whose officials are intent on making it a name as well-known to the consumer as Lycra or Intel.
Microban's partnership with PCE has reduced the product development cycle significantly, Microban President Bill Taylor said in an Oct. 18 interview at his company's plant.
``I've got a team here that works so closely with [PCE's] team, we're doing essentially product development or masterbatch development on a toll-compounding-type basis,'' he said. Essentially, [in] less than 60 days, we are up and running and could toll manufacture.''
As a result of Microban's work with PCE, the industry will see products from two major manufacturers, medical-products firm Invacare and water-filtration products from DuPont Co., Taylor said. DuPont's filtration products are being sold in Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and will be available at Target.
PCE has 236 companies that have been its customers, and 1,200 visitors in 2004 alone. Within five years, it will be fully self-funded, Hayford said. It began as the Polymers Extension Program, a joint venture between the Industrial Extension Service at North Carolina State University in Raleigh and the Cameron Applied Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, according to its Web site.
In November, it will learn if it will receive funds through the Golden Leaf Foundation, a nonprofit group formed in 1999 that received one-half of the funds coming to North Carolina from the master settlement agreement with cigarette makers, according to the Golden Leaf Web site. The group focuses on making North Carolina less dependent economically on tobacco.
PCE is one of the Charlotte region's main tools to attract plastics firms, officials said. As the plastics industry continues its reshuffling in the global business environment, regions of North America have to assess how they can remain competitive.
Even as studies encouraging a movement away from plastics populate their desks, local economic development officials said they are charging headstrong in the other direction. Several groups shared a booth at Plastics Encounter Southeast, including Randolph County Economic Development Corp. of Asheboro, N.C.; Stanly County Economic Development of Albemarle, N.C.; and Duke Power, the electric utility based in Charlotte.
Nearly 12,200 workers are employed in the plastics industry in the Charlotte region and more than 280 plastics companies have facilities within the area, according to Duke Power.
Meantime, officials brag about facilities like PCE that provide research and development, testing and workforce development. One of the keys to staying competitive is training, officials said.
``Machines are all different animals and their behavior has to be understood by the worker,'' Hayford said. ``Manufacturers [in North and South Carolina] are starting to understand that training is necessary.''
As corporate investments have been dramatically smaller and job growth has been minimal, regions have to exercise their competitive muscle, officials said. In the Charlotte area, the average expansion in injection molding would be $3 million to $5 million with 40-50 employees.
``We don't see projects with 1,000 employees anymore. A huge opportunity would be 300-400 employees. Any industry that we target, we think it's critically important to have these magnets,'' said Kenny McDonald, senior vice president of Charlotte Regional Partnership. The regional partnership represents 12 counties in North Carolina and four in South Carolina. That group shared a booth with PCE.
``We have to have those things that make us different from a technology standpoint,'' he said. ``Things like the Polymers Center are the criteria that make us different and put us over the top. If we didn't have something like that, we would be trying to organize a grass-roots plastics group to come together. You have to have a place for those companies and groups to come together.''
About 50 percent of the regional partnership's active projects are foreign-based, officials said, and the region has seen German, Italian and Austrian firms make substantial investments. According to Charlotte Regional Partnership, the 16-county area is home to more than 600 foreign-owned firms.
Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory emphasized the importance of the manufacturing economy to the Queen City region during an opening-day speech Oct. 18 at Plastics Encounter.
The manufacturing industry is the largest employer in the Charlotte area, he said.
``Frankly, the industry is very important. We can't rely on the service industry alone. The strength of the products, the adaptability of your products is crucial. We want to work with you in promoting your industry and promoting your product,'' he said.