New lab could bridge Chicago’s manufacturing past, digital age

BY BRIAN SLODYSKO Staff Reporter

February 23, 2014 4:38PM

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Updated: March 25, 2014 6:26AM

News that a national laboratory, dedicated to the burgeoning field of digital manufacturing, will be built in Chicago offers hope that the city’s once-strong manufacturing sector can be rebuilt into a powerhouse of the 21st century, officials said.

The lab, to be built on Goose Island sometime in the near future, will offer a state-of-the art research and development facility to companies large and small, as they seek to harness the potential of big data and supercomputing to solve centuries-old manufacturing dilemmas.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., discussed the new lab during a news conference Sunday in the Merchandise Mart at 1871, a hub for digital startup companies.

If all goes well, the brainpower it will draw to the region could help reinvigorate the city’s manufacturing sector, Emanuel said. That could also position Chicago to rival other technology hubs, such as the Research Triangle in North Carolina or Silicon Valley in California, officials said.

“This is a whole new way of manufacturing,” Emanuel said. “You have to take an idea and get it to market with speed. That is why this research capacity, from a design standpoint, is so essential to putting Chicago and Illinois at the cutting edge.”

The facility — which will be operated by UI Labs, a nonprofit spinoff of the University of Illinois — could be the advent of a new era in manufacturing, slashing the time it takes to get new products from concept stage to storefront.

“All these [manufacturing] problems are worth revisiting with this new technology,” Bill King, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who oversaw the winning bid, told the Chicago Sun-Times by phone on Sunday.

To understand exactly what digital manufacturing is — and what kind of work will be done at the lab — it helps to look at the advent of sabermetrics in the game of baseball.

Like baseball, manufacturing can benefit by the application of rigorous and complex statistical analysis to improve performance.

But when you throw whiz-kid academics and industry professionals together in a lab and give them supercomputing power, it’s like feeding “steroids” to your data interpretation abilities, King said.

That means an engine designer “can predict the performance of how this engine will behave, simulate thousands of variations and find which ones perform the best,” King said. “It makes it much faster to get to your first working prototype.”

The lab, which will be built with $70 million grant from the Department of Defense grants and an additional $250 million in public and private-sector funding, will collect and interpret and share that data — working as a clearinghouse for those who seek it, King said. President Barack Obama will announce the grant on Tuesday at the White House.

The lab also will have individual test laboratories, where manufacturers can come to test out their ideas before they start to build a product, King said.

Many heavy-hitters in the industry — including Boeing, General Electric, Caterpillar and Northrop Grumman — have put money into the Chicago venture, beating out other groups from New England, California and Huntsville, Ala.

In his 2013 State of the Union speech, Obama called for the creation three institutes to pool the resources and talents from academia, business and local, state and federal agencies.

The goal, Obama said, was to spur research and development to help develop products, train students and workers and keep the U.S. high-tech and industrial base competitive.

“What we learned from the process is if, in Illinois, we work to together, then we can improve the future of our state,” said Chris Kennedy, the chairman of University of Illinois Board of Trustees.

Contributing: Lynn Sweet

Email: bslodysko@suntimes.com

Twitter: @brianslodysko

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