RALEIGH — The new man running Burlington Industries is a believer in Nanotechnology, and he sees the old economy firm he acquired using the latest technology.

During a “Trade Town Hall Meeting” at the Emerging Issues Forum on Monday, Wilbur Ross, chairman of the International Steel Group and recent purchaser of NC’s Burlington Industries, touted the advantages of emerging nanotechnology in textiles.

Ross pointed out that Burlington was using nanotechnology – the science of the very, very small – to create unique products such as water-repelling cotton and silk fabrics called Nanocare.

“They’re now rolling out in shirts and pants at Old Navy,” he said. Another nanotech innovation, “Nanodry,” is being used in Brooks Brothers ties and in sports clothing, he said.

“I’m a little obsessed that we in the textile industry must increase the technology content of our product,” Ross said.

“In most other countries, they’re focused on low cost labor, not technology.” Ross warned that “technology alone isn’t enough,” and argued for trade restrictions and a crackdown on China’s abuses of free trade rules as well.

Merging old and new

In a session called “Merging Old and New Economies,” Grant Godwin, vice president and general manager of Martin Marietta composites, described how his company had to overcome obstacles to gain acceptance for its advanced materials. The company has a manufacturing plant in northern NC.

Those materials are now used in medical devices, new Boeing jets, truck trailers, and Navy ships and bridges. The composites are stronger and lighter than conventional materials. They increase the life of a bridge by seven times and make a truck trailer 20 percent lighter, Godwin said.

Gaining acceptance took time, he said. “It’s not easy. We’re entrepreneurs challenging conventional wisdom in the industry.”

He pointed to other ways technology transforms manufacturing industries to keep the U.S. in the lead. “One company is using tobacco plants as hosts to make pharmaceuticals,” he said. “They’re going to use tobacco to reduce the cost of drugs.”

R&D plus patience

Research and development is critical in all areas, Godwin added. “Three decades ago we had a 70 percent market share lead in R&D, now it’s 30 percent,” he said. “Our investment is about the same but other nations greatly increased theirs because they saw what we’ve done.”

Godwin said engineers need broad-based entrepreneurial and business skills to develop the types of businesses needed for the future. He added that technologies such as the Internet can make even non-technical business such as one selling fishing lures and bait globally competitive.

“New England and the northeast are recovering from their loss of textiles and other industries by replacing them with high tech and cottage industries. When was the last time you heard the phrase ‘rust belt?'”

Godwin also stressed that change takes time. “It’s human nature to want the homerun, but more games are won by base hits that slowly advance the runners,” he said.