SOUTH BOSTON, VA - Does manufacturing still have a place in the U.S. economy? A group of high school and community college students in South Boston, VA say yes--and they’ve partnered with an international furniture maker to make the case.

High school dual enrollment WoodLINKS students, and adult Product Design & Development students at the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center (SVHEC) recently worked with High Point, NC’s renowned Lloyd Buxton to prove that American manufacturing can work. To test the theory, students were given one week to replicate a Lloyd Buxton showroom piece currently being produced in the Philippines. The key question: could the American made occasional table be produced as cost-effectively and efficiently as the one made overseas?

Collaborating with the SVHEC’s R&D Center for Advanced Manufacturing & Energy Efficiency (R&D CAMEE), a 3-D drawing of the table was created using the TopSolid computer-aided-design (CAD) software. Working with 103-year-old wood reclaimed from Danville’s Dan River Mill, the individual table parts were fabricated on a 3-axis computer-numerical-controlled (CNC) router.

Halifax County High School WoodLINKS students then manually distressed the piece and prepared the surface for finishing. Using these and other advanced manufacturing techniques, students were able to meet the deadline, and, they believe, demonstrate American labor can successfully compete with overseas manufacturing.

“Our table is good quality and being produced in America instead of overseas provides the opportunity for jobs in America,” said Halifax County High School Senior Jonathan Stevens. Classmates Tyler Conner and Shonquel Betts agreed, and when asked to compare the quality of their American made table with the one produced overseas simply said, “I think ours is better.”

The WoodLINKS/Product Design & Development constructed table was recently featured in the Lloyd Buxton showroom at the October International Home Furnishings Market. This top international marketing event is to the furniture market what the Detroit Auto Show is to the automotive industry.

Lloyd Buxton didn’t take orders on the table, but conducted market research, gauged buyer response, and will ultimately determine if the market will support moving production from the Philippines to the United States. Ultimately costs, price-point, and the bottom line will be the determining factor.

“We see a trend in the industry that a lot of retailers want to buy American made products. The public too wants to buy American made if they can find it,” Hinkle continued. “The question for us is can we manufacture American made goods in the US cheaply enough for the public to buy it. People want quality but the price dictates whether they’ll buy it or not,” he said.

That is where the SVHEC’s R&D Center for Advanced Manufacturing & Energy Efficiency hopes to make a significant impact.

“Advanced manufacturing technology shortened the manufacturing time and made for an efficient production. Should Lloyd Buxton decide to manufacture the table our production ready files will be turned over to them to create a seamless transition to commercialization,” said David Kenealy, SVHEC Director of Research & Development. It is Hinkles’ hope that this use of technology will reduce production costs to a point where manufacturing in the US is smart business.

Working with a client on a project with real-world challenges and implications has left a lasting impression on the WoodLINKS and Product Design & Development students.

“As the project moved forward students began making connections between what they were doing and the entire design, engineering, profitability process of product development,” Kenealy stated. WoodLINKS/Product Design & Development Instructor Clint Johnson agreed, “The lightbulb really started coming on for students as they started seeing concrete connections with the art-to-part-to-mart philosophy we teach in the program.”

While there are no guarantees that the students’ work will result in production coming back to the US, there is high optimism from everyone involved. Hinkle summed it up when he said, “I’m hoping this will all come together and will be good for everybody--for us, the SVHEC, and the students. Hopefully we’ll be able to create some jobs.”

Lloyd Buxton is located in High Point, NC and specializes in classical English style furniture with an emphasis on quality, tradition, and sophisticated living. Product Design & Development at the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center is offered in partnership with Danville Community College. Registration for spring 2012 classes is now open. For more information visit www.svhed.org, email information@svhed.org, or call 434-572-5566 and toll free 1-800-283-0098 ext 5566.

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