UI Labs Fosters Manufacturing Innovation in Middle America

Forming consortia of academic, industry and civic partners, UI Labs opened its doors last week on Chicago’s Goose Island, showing off 24,000 square feet of manufacturing space for the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII).

As the U.S. continues to push for innovation to bring more manufacturing back home, one organization has its sights on filling a need in the middle of the country. “There are technology and innovation systems on both coasts,” said Alyssa Sullivan, senior manager of strategic integration for UI Labs, referencing both Silicon Valley on the West Coast and MIT and the Boston area on the East Coast. “There’s a little bit of a void here in the Midwest.”

UI Labs, which aims to solve large-scale industrial challenges through consortia of academic, corporate and civic partners (UI stands for university and industry), has set up its headquarters on Chicago’s Goose Island (a.k.a. Innovation Island) to develop and demonstrate a digital thread of technology across the manufacturing process. The Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII), the first program developed within UI Labs, flung open the doors to its new digs last week and hit the ground running.

UI Labs had its official ribbon cutting ceremony for its new headquarters last Monday, with local and national officials—Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner; U.S. Senator Dick Durbin; Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel; Willie May, director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST); and Adele Ratcliff, director of manufacturing technology for the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD)—helping to celebrate.

On Friday, UI Labs opened its doors to the public, inviting tours of DMDII’s 24,000-square-foot manufacturing floor and showcasing the machines and technology being used to demonstrate digital manufacturing capabilities.

In a pre-tour presentation, Sullivan emphasized the economic impact not only for Chicago and Illinois, but the U.S. as a whole. And at the official opening of the headquarters, Dean Bartles, DMDII executive director, commented, “Every U.S. manufacturer, from Fortune 500 companies to small and medium-sized businesses, can come to our headquarters and see the latest advanced manufacturing technologies that will improve their business performance and profitability.”

“If we can produce products less expensively, we’ll be more competitive, and can bring jobs back to the United States,” added Jacob Goodwin, director of membership engagement and communications, in a promotional video.

DMDII already has several projects in the works. To learn more about those projects, read about an update presented by George Barnych, DMDII’s director of R&D programs. DMDII will be announcing $15 million worth of awards within the next 60 days, according to Jason Harris, director of corporate marketing and communications for UI Labs. This year should see a total of $50 million in awards from UI Labs.

A proposers’ day later in the year will bring partners in to look at project scopes so they can start teaming with each other, Harris added.

DMDII has more than 70 partners currently from industry, academia and government, such as Boeing, Caterpillar, Deere, General Electric, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft, Rolls-Royce, Siemens PLM Software and more. Friday’s open house seemed largely geared toward attracting more partners, showing off the capabilities and emphasizing the benefits of partnership.

“Give us your ideas about what you want to get out of this,” urged Caralynn Nowinski, executive director of UI Labs, as she spoke to attendees.

Dan Hartman, director of manufacturing R&D, led groups around DMDII’s manufacturing floor throughout the afternoon, explaining the function of each of the cells. “They’re designed to be as lean and agile as possible,” said Hartman, who is on part-time loan from lab partner Rolls-Royce in Indianapolis. “We expect every cell to change to something new at least once a year.”

DMDII’s manufacturing floor is currently made up of seven cells: multi-axis, complex machining; standard machining; emerging technologies; metrology; welding and fabrication; micro technology; and electronics and assembly. The cells are outfitted with about $3.5 million worth of equipment, all on loan from machine builders including DMG Mori and Haas. This gives them the opportunity to show their equipment running in a state-of-the-art facility, Hartman said, noting that they can also bring customers into DMDII’s manufacturing space to show the equipment in action.

“Three weeks ago, this was just a concrete floor,” Hartman noted as he showed off the current capabilities. There is still a lot of floor showing, however, with plenty of room for DMDII to grow.

In the emerging technologies cell, for example, stands just one five-axis vertical machining center from Haas. There are already plans to expand with a 3D printing machine, robotics and optical scanning equipment. Hartman also spoke of hybrid capabilities, including laser 3D printing and machining in the same piece of equipment. “There’s much more to come in this cell,” he said.

“We are on the brink of a huge wave of innovation,” said William King, DMDII’s CTO, in the video presentation. “DMDII is at the center of that.”

In addition to DMDII, a second program, CityWorks, was launched this year at UI Labs. It focuses on urban infrastructure, using Chicago as a model global city for pilot deployment of new technologies. UI Labs plans to continue introducing new programs in “whatever else,” Sullivan said. “Healthcare, agriculture… Really, the world is our oyster when it comes to our efforts.”

 

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