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$320 million Chicago manufacturing lab to bridge lab bench, factory floor

by James Risley
Feb 27, 2014

U.S. manufacturing prowess may be on the decline, but a $320 million digital manufacturing research lab planned for Goose Island may help bring major manufacturing projects to stateside. A new high-tech manufacturing hub created by UI Labs will look into how to improve manufacturing techniques and supply chain logistics.

President Barack Obama announced Tuesday a $70 million Department of Defense grant to UI Labs, a partnership between public and private groups, including universities and manufacturers. The DoD grant will supplement $250 million in private funding from corporations including Boeing Co. in Chicago, General Electric Co. in Fairfield, Conn., and Caterpillar Inc. in Peoria. Together, the funds will be used to operate the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute, or "Digital Lab."


The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Northwestern University, University of Chicago, Illinois Institute of Technology, Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., and Indiana University in Bloomington are among the university partners.

Jian Cao, the associate vice president for research at Northwestern University, said that the Digital Lab will solve a lot of problems. She researches advanced manufacturing processes and has studied wrinkling in sheet-metal forming in the past, which can now be predicted with advanced modeling software. That frees up the Digital Lab to work on bigger problems.

“We are looking at how to reduce the variation, how do you reduce the cost of the tooling and how do you improve the cost quality,” Cao said. Her team is also looking at low-quantity production, which is used to test products and manufacturing techniques.

“This is where 3-D printing has come into play,” Cao said. “Looking at how do you do the process better so that you can print out the part with the quality and surface finish that you want. Or how do you reduce or totally get rid of the tooling?”

Digital Lab will use of Blue Waters, the supercomputer at UIUC, to simulate manufacturing techniques. This will bridge a gap in funding that Cao said is a major problem in reaching full-scale manufacturing.

She said the lab will reduce the cost of testing manufacturing processes before they are put into place in a factory. Often, researchers develop new techniques in the lab and are able to demonstrate in small scale, but companies are hesitant to invest in large-scale tests before manufacturing can begin.

“If you put $1 to a new idea, in order to have it successful operation, there's an additional $10 needed for investment,” she said. “In many companies, they only invest $7.”

Companies would rather invest in manpower and equipment for the final project than testing. Digital Lab is looking at reducing the cost for that middle ground.

While big companies have supplied funding to this project, Cao said that Digital Lab aims to help small businesses as well. Research into supply-chain logistics can help smaller companies bid on government projects by better understanding how to deploy manufacturing faster.

“Part of the goal of this digital manufacturing is also how do we get the price and component stock all hooked into the network so that we know there is capacity right there [to complete a job],” Cao said.

Terry Howerton, CEO of Chicago-based corporate incubator TechNexus, said that Digital Lab can help drive Chicago small businesses.

“It's critically important that Chicago's tech startup community find bigger problems to solve, and focusing some attention on advanced manufacturing is a great example of that,” Howerton said.

The lab itself will create 100 jobs within the first year, according to UI Labs spokesman Marty Malone.

“Indirectly, we hope that it will create thousands of jobs,” he said.

According to the Digital Lab website, the lab will be self-sufficient within five years. This will involve “research projects that are market-pull driven.”

Digital Lab will be located on Goose Island in the former Republic Windows & Doors building at 930 W. Evergreen Ave. The 50,000-square-foot lab is expected to open in the fall.