When the Sherrill Furniture plant in Hickory repeatedly found itself with broken-down machines rather than finished occasional tables, plant manager Andy Matton put in a call to the Wood Machining & Tooling Research Program (WMTRP) at NC State. Researchers there told him he would have more success if he slowed his production line slightly. “In our applications, we sometimes push the systems beyond the breaking point,” Matton says, adding that the advice worked. “We’re not having that problem anymore since we backed off a bit.”

Founded more than a decade ago to stem the steady erosion of North Carolina’s once dominant furniture industry, WMTRP is the only program of its kind in the United States. It also is part of a 12-university research effort funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to find ways to make the wood products industry more competitive globally and environmentally friendly at home.

In what amounts to a giant woodworking shop on Dan Allen Drive, WMTRP founder Dr. John Stewart and director Dr. Richard Lemaster talk above the whine of saws about the applied, inter-disciplinary research used to develop better equipment for tool manufacturers and improved production processes for furniture companies. “A lot of companies aren’t able to help themselves because they can’t afford in-house research departments,” Lemaster says. “We do that work for them.”

The program focuses on technologies not normally associated with couches and chairs. Materials scientists, for example, study how diamond coatings can make saws and other tools last longer. Meanwhile, mechanical engineers examine the effects machine speed and vibration have on production and use sensors to monitor machining conditions and detect defects in wood surfaces.

“Some people think that Elvis has left the building as far as a good portion of the furniture industry in the state goes,” says Stewart, a research professor in the Department of Wood and Paper Science in the College of Natural Resources. “But there are many firms that still have success here, and they are thriving because of lean manufacturing and technological innovation.”

But getting an industry steeped in tradition like furniture making—and, in turn, their machine suppliers—to accept new technologies continues to be the main challenge for WMTRP, even as these companies face growing competition from overseas, Stewart explains. Appearances at trade shows, articles in industry journals, and technology transfer have been effective in converting manufacturers to new systems and processes.

Matton at Sherrill Furniture is one such convert, saying NC State understands the needs of domestic furniture manufacturers in an evolving industry. “We’re getting into areas where we don’t have expertise and don’t even know where to start,” he says. “NC State is the only place you can go to get answers.”

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