Skip to main content

Greenville Business Magazine

Upstate’s a Material World, Advanced

Jul 03, 2017 01:41PM ● By Makayla Gay

By John Jeter

Thanks to the Upstate, the world can use cell phones. People can play pain-free golf with hip or knee replacements and live longer with components in pacemakers. And we can fly. All because of the region’s leading role in advanced materials, a manufacturing sector that uses some of the Earth’s most esoteric stuff.

Titanium. Nickel. Chromium. Cobalt. Zirconium. Yytria. (We’ve never heard of that, either; suffice to say it’s a rare and complex mineral.) Unobtanium. (Okay, that’s from the planet Pandora, from the film Avatar, but you get the idea—we’re talking about materials so out-there that we don’t need to understand them, we just can’t live without them.)

“We don’t make the materials you use, we make the materials you use better,” says Steve Prout, Southeast president of Solar Atmospheres Inc. “We’re taking titanium implants to bring them from an as-manufactured state into a state that can actually impart all the strength and features it needs as it’s turned into a hip implant.”

Headquartered in Pennsylvania, Solar Atmospheres manufactures and operates 60 vacuum furnaces nationwide to heat—up to 2,500 degrees F—all manner of advanced materials for such applications as aerospace, medical, defense, automotive, and power generation. Incidentally, two of the companies here say they chose the Upstate in large part because of competitive energy rates; they consume enormous amounts of electricity.

Solar Atmospheres’ largest customer is Boeing. Without the heat-treated titanium tracks that run along and under a 787, the plane’s carbon-fiber fuselage wouldn’t hold together.

The company’s 57,000-square-foot plant opened in 2015 in Greenville. Today, it’s among more than 800 advanced-materials businesses throughout the Upstate that employ nearly 40,000 people. Their earnings, at roughly $70,000 a year, are a third higher than the state’s median income.

The Upstate SC Alliance says that as of June 2016, advanced-materials companies invested $158 billion here and added almost 500 jobs, part of what the state Department of Commerce says is a 48,000-job expansion since 2011.

That’s an advance in itself, especially given the state’s manufacturing evolution from textiles to automotive and aerospace.

John Lummus, president and CEO of Upstate SC Alliance, cites Milliken & Co., the textile giant that started in 1884, as one example of a highly adaptive legacy operation. The Spartanburg firm that started with woolen fabrics has woven a quilt of more than 2,000 patents and 19,000 products, from thermoplastics to polymeric fibers.

“Materials are, quite literally, the building blocks of all manufactured products, and they are constantly evolving to meet market challenges and shifts,” Lummus says. “Think about how fuel efficiency standards have steered the automotive industry toward lighter vehicles or how the development of smartphones and wearable devices has driven advances in solid-state storage.”

Think about AFL, whose Duncan, S.C., operation manufacturers the cables that contain digital optical fibers that … well … essentially propel our lives. A wholly owned subsidiary of Tokyo-based Fujikura, AFL is headquartered in Spartanburg County, where its 750 employees just made its millionth kilometer of cabling.

Get this. “Eighty percent of what you see in the United States of this optical ground wire was made right here,” says Grant Burns, AFL’s vice president and general counsel. Optical ground wire is the fancy name for the power-line cabling that contains glass-based fibers that transmit data. He later adds, “We make Google go.”

Here’s how much data goes through just one fiber:

Light at various wavelengths is beamed through a fiber 250 microns in diameter, about twice the size of a human hair. Inside that fiber, the light takes up only about 8 microns, the diameter of a red blood cell. That single thread can carry an Encyclopædia Britannica set—less the pictures—in a tenth of a second.

“The whole backbone of the United States is fiber optic,” says Joe Cignarale, AFL’s director of technology, cable, and connectivity.

The Spartanburg operation’s fibers come from AFL’s Massachusetts plant in spools each containing a length of fiber that could stretch from Greenville to Laurens. Cignarale oversees coloring and packaging those fibers into cables made of as many as 50 types of metals and advanced plastics, such as PVCs, nylons, and polymers. Those conduits are designed to protect fibers for decades against high-wire tension and radical weather.

Another Upstate company, Flame Spray Coating Co., which employs 82 people in a 75,000-square-foot plant that opened in 2011 in Laurens County, does much the same thing: using molybdenum, nickel, tungsten, and the like on other advanced materials.

The Italian-owned company’s robots thermally spray its largest customer’s power-generator turbines; each coat makes each G.E. blade more durable and more efficient.

“We are doing a lot of research and development here,” says Marco Prosperini, a Milan native who has lived in Greenville since 2011 and serves as Flame Spray North America’s president and CEO. “Most of our coatings are designed by the customer. Our customer is telling us, ‘You have to put this coating on this component, and it has to look like this.’ Now, how to get there is our problem.”

It’s precisely that innovative thinking, along with the sector’s double-digit growth, that figured prominently in an Upstate SC Alliance strategic plan released this year: “toward enriching the economic competitiveness of the Upstate,” with Advanced Materials a priority.

“Among the tactics named in this strategy is staking a claim with advanced materials in the Upstate,” Lummus says. “By leveraging our existing materials expertise with our talented workforce and the recognized Clemson University College of Materials Science and Engineering, we believe the Upstate can grow the ecosystem and use its research capabilities to generate more materials that solve industry challenges.”

Solar Atmosphere’s Prout sums it up this way. Citing Boeing—and the fact that aerospace growth now outpaces automotive, which itself blew past South Carolina’s textile sector more than a decade ago—he says of the whole advanced materials thing:

”It’s a pretty neat thing for the state. We’re really excited about it because that’s truly what we came here to do. We came to grow with the state.”