Katherine Lee learns about welding at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville. Courtesy of GO TEC.

Construction of a $25.5 million Center for Manufacturing Advancement at Danville’s Institute for Advanced Learning and Research is just the latest step in Danville’s decades-long effort to turn Danville into an advanced manufacturing hub.

“We just knew that our DNA was manufacturing” and that we had to build a manufacturing-friendly region, Troy Simpson, director of advanced manufacturing at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research, said.

The Center for Manufacturing Advancement, is one piece of a much larger puzzle that included the revitalization of downtown Danville, incorporating trade skills into the local school curriculum, and most recently securing contracts with the Department of Defense to develop an accelerated training program for skilled technicians for the defense industrial base.

The Center for Manufacturing Advancement under construction in Danville. Courtesy of the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research.

Simpson said the Center for Manufacturing Advancement will provide companies with new employees, training capability, and a place to start. Expected to open in 2022, the 51,250-square-foot building has next-generation inspection, production and process-improvement labs; amenities that will enable manufacturers to immediately launch production; and room for companies to collaborate. 

The center was designed specifically to provide manufacturers with everything they need to launch in Danville. 

Danville City Councilman Lee Vogler said the last 10 years have been about laying the foundation for Danville’s future, “and this coming decade that we’re now in, is really where I think you’re gonna see the house be built,” Vogler said.

“For decades we were a textile and tobacco city and now we’re becoming known for advanced manufacturing and companies like Morgan Olson, for example, that located here a couple of years ago and has been a huge asset to our city and our region. We look at this as another opportunity to cement ourselves as the comeback city and to provide job opportunities for our citizens and to grow this wonderful portfolio of companies that have decided to call Danville home,” Vogler said. 

Phillips Corporation Inc. saw the value in Danville at least 20 years ago. Its experiences in Danville have changed the company leading it to become one of the biggest supporters of the effort to transform Danville.

“In all those communities we serve and we sell to, Danville by far has the best focus, vision, and execution of a training program. And so that’s why we’re continuing to invest our time and money there,” Rick Morgan of Phillips Corporation said. 

“Really since we’ve gotten involved with the Danville situation we’ve realized the potential of the combination of training and applications engineering, we’ve gotten into that ourselves and they’ve expanded that sector. So that’s a fast-growth area for us as well. Sort of like being consultants on how to use your technology better at the higher end,” Morgan said.

Kyocera, a technology company with more than $19 billion in revenue and manufacturers in more than 30 countries, was only recently attracted to Danville. 

The Kyocera facility in Danville.

“We were phenomenally impressed with Danville’s vision, what they were looking to build … Danville had such a confidence and such a vision and what seemed like the whole community was rallied around becoming that,” said Jason Wells, president and CEO of Kyocera SGS Tech Hub, which opened at the institute about four years ago.

“You just got sucked into it, their passion, their vision, what they were going to do, regardless of whether we landed here or not. They were like, this is where we’re going, this is what we’re going to be and it was inspiring. It really was … just really contagious and inspiring,” he said.

The new Center for Manufacturing Advancement is expected to house an Innovation Center focused on additive manufacturing, CNC machining, or subtractive manufacturing, and an ISO-certified inspection lab so companies have access to a quality lab without having to make that kind of investment in the startup phase.

The site will give manufacturing and technology companies a rare opportunity to work together to develop new processes or even integrate emerging technologies into a new company without disrupting their current operations. 

In an industry 4.0 training and demonstration lab, which Simpson refers to as the next evolution of manufacturing, machines will communicate and share data that is then used to control, monitor and modify processing, without human intervention. 

“The Center for Manufacturing Advancement is basically a collaborative hub for manufacturers, technology companies [and] students,” Simpson said adding that ultimately the center aims to provide companies with everything they need to remain competitive globally. 

The Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

The Rapid Launch facility on the campus of Institute for Advanced Learning and Research will give new and expanding companies a place to start training, manufacturing, processing, and putting equipment in place, while their own building is under construction. 

Companies that come to the region stand to have a steady flow of future employees thanks to the local education system  — the community college and K-12 classrooms — which is building their future workforce. Kids as young as 10 years old now can learn how to weld via virtual reality. Dual enrollment courses are leading to advanced certifications that allow high school graduates to go straight into the workforce. 

Tammy Hurt, program manager for the GO TEC educational programming said the region’s singular focus on preparing for next-generation manufacturing has attracted more than $6 million in investments in GO TEC, eight new companies with 1,100 new jobs and five company expansions bringing another 165 new jobs. GO TEC, which stands for Great Opportunities in Technology and Engineering Careers, works to create a dependable talent pipeline for advanced manufacturers.

“It’s a very exciting time to be in Danville,” Hurt said, adding that educators are now showing students a clear path to profitable careers of the future. Within two years she expects more than 7,000 middle school students in the region to have been introduced to trade skills through GO TEC.

And this latest development is still just the beginning of Danville’s transformation, according to Lee Vogler.  

“We’re just hard-working people that have, for generations, have one way or another been accustomed to working hard, paying the bills and doing what needs to be done to build a good life for themselves. Whether it’s working long hours out in the tobacco field, or working in a textile mill to now, taking that next step to getting the certifications and education needed to work in this way we have a large number of people who just will do what it takes to succeed,” Vogler said. 

“We don’t want to ever go back to where one company or one industry is the be all end all of our city. It was very apparent what happens when you do that when Dan River Mills left, and you know, left a massive hole in our city, we never want to have that happen again. So we are going to keep racking up as many singles and doubles as we can. We love the home runs and the Grand Slams too, but we’re going to have a whole lot of base hits in the meantime, to make sure that if our home run hitter strikes out, we’ve still got some base hits to keep us going.”

Amy Trent

Amy Trent is a Lynchburg-based journalist. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers. She is a graduate of the University of Iowa and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists,...