TABOR CITY - A textile manufacturer that began operations in Columbus County this year says business is good and it expects to triple capacity in the near future.
At a time when many textile plants have long since closed across the Cape Fear region, sending jobs overseas, Discover Textiles says it has found a way to compete using a customized knitting machine. Operations began in July in the Tabor Industrial Park in Tabor City, making fitted sheets for beds in hospitals and health care facilities across the country, said company founder and President Jurgen Grunert.
Six people work for the company now, but Grunert says he expects to double his workforce and triple his capacity with additional equipment. A formal ribbon-cutting was held Tuesday.
Grunert said the company purchased a used knitting machine made by the Karl Mayer company that was customized with a special double needle. The modifications made the machine so unique that a patent is pending, he said.
Competing in textiles requires a better product and automation, Grunert said.
"Otherwise you're competing with 100 (workers) in a foreign country," he said.
The knitting machine, in one process, creates fitted sheets in a variety of sizes that are made from a variety of materials - at least two in every sheet - with strength from a seamless process. The sheets are lightweight, which is an advantage for buyers, said Gary Lanier, Columbus County's economic development director.
"Those sheets have to be washed, and most linen services charge by weight. There's real savings to be had by keeping the material light, especially where it's not seen, while putting the best part of the sheet where the patient has contact."
Finding qualified workers has been the biggest challenge, Grunert said. Manager Chris Neese, a veteran of the textile industry, drives in from Wilmington. Two employees are from the immediate area.
Textile jobs have disappeared in Tabor City, Chadbourn, Whiteville and elsewhere during the past two decades.
"It seems that a lot of those workers, once they got out of textiles, don't want to come back," Lanier said.
Still, Grunert said he'll have another knitting machine on site "in the foreseeable future" and will modify it in similar fashion to his current machine.
Discovery Textiles may move to round-the-clock operations soon. A major change would come if production with both machines reaches capacity.
"We have no more room," Grunert said. "We would have to move."