The future is coming.
Just ask Bill King. The University of Illinois engineering professor will tell you about a new paradigm of speed and efficiency whereby things can be made faster, better, cheaper. Airplanes, cars, weapons systems. Textiles, housewares, razors. Pencils, paper, laptops. Practically anything you can imagine that doesn’t emerge from another living creature or push up out of the Earth or fall from the sky.
Digital manufacturing is a phenomenon that King believes will create—is creating—a second Industrial Revolution. The speed and efficiency possible when computing power is brought to bear on production will yield new infusions of opportunity and prosperity to the world. “We are on the brink of a huge wave of innovation in manufacturing,” King says. “It’s going to change manufacturing the same way that digital technologies have changed the media. And it’s going to require an entirely new skill set, both for people on the factory floor and for engineers and designers.”
King has a lot of great company in this vision: 40 companies and more than 30 academic, government and community partners, including the White House, the U.S. Department of Defense, the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago. All are backing a new University of Illinois digital manufacturing lab that is expected to help revitalize the Chicago economy and transform the way the U.S. does business. In February, the White House gave its blessing—not to mention $70 million in DoD funding—to a proposal written by King for a Digital Manufacturing Design Innovation Institute (DMDII) to be established under the auspices of the University of Illinois. Located in Chicago, the facility is the fourth in a series of 45 innovation hubs being funded by the federal government to ensure America’s competitiveness in manufacturing and technology in the 21st century.
As President Barack Obama put it when he announced the award in February: “The country that gets new products to market faster and at less cost [will] win the race for the good jobs of tomorrow.”
Backing up the $70 million from the government is $250 million (and growing) in commitments from partners in the DMDII consortium, which include such corporate giants as Rolls Royce, GE and Procter & Gamble. “The idea of digitally connecting the U.S. supply chain really appealed to the broader set of partners that we were able to engage,” observes Caralynn Nowinski, MBA ’07, MD ’07, who, as U of I associate vice president for innovation and economic development, has been deeply involved in forging the consortium. “We also identified very critical, near-term projects and products as being valuable to manufacturing and technology companies that were joining our consortium.”
DMDII is the first project for UI Labs, a research entity established to unite technology from all three University of Illinois campuses with the economic opportunities of Chicago. Housed in temporary quarters, DMDII is expected to move into its permanent home on Goose Island by the year-end. As Nowinski explains it, the lab will serve as a hub, sharing services and technology with such “spokes” as corporate partners, other universities and laboratories. The National Center for Supercomputing Applications at Illinois and the UIC Electronic Visualization Lab will play especially important roles, as will the Quad City Manufacturing Laboratory at the Rock Island Arsenal, Rock Island, Ill.
“Beyond digital manufacturing, UI Labs is a new platform for universities and industries to work together solving problems in a way that creates a destination for talent and technology in Illinois—and specifically within Chicago,” Nowinski says. “I’ve talked to alumni from small companies, big companies and associations all over the U.S. For them, this is a reason to think about coming back to Chicago, about setting up their next company in Chicago, about looking to invest in companies in Chicago.”
Chris Kennedy, chairman of the U of I Board of Trustees, shares these great expectations of renewal for the Windy City via technology and partnership with the University of Illinois. Kennedy’s vision comes from the heart. “Unless we have economic rebirth in our state, our children are going to seek jobs and careers elsewhere. They’re going to go to New York, San José [and other cities],” he says. “This isn’t simply an economic matter. It’s a family matter.
“The work the University has done gives us a fighting chance to keep our children close to home.”
New solutions to age-old challenges
To understand just what digital manufacturing means, it’s helpful to break the term into its two component words. If “manufacturing” seems self-evident, it’s also enduringly complicated and difficult. “The challenges that manufacturers face basically have not changed since the Industrial Revolution,” says King, who cites design, manufacture, quality, efficiency and delivery among those challenges. “None of these problems is new. People have been working on them for over a hundred years.”
But “digital” is what’s making a difference today—in no small part because it’s ubiquitous. “We have mobile computing, tablet computing, cloud computing,” King points out. “We all carry around smartphones that have huge computing power.
“And all of those manufacturing problems are worth revisiting, now that we can apply this massive computing power to do things faster, to make things that are higher quality, to make better use of our resources, to make our people more productive.”
The role of computer technology in the manufacturing process has been evolving for several decades. Software applications have found their way into processes ranging from design and assembly to automation and supply chain management. Key to the digital revolution in manufacturing is not just capturing vast amounts of data, but in being able to use it. What DMDII can bring to the table is integration. Information generated at each step of a manufacturing process, can—and will—be captured (by specialized sensors, among other methods). Analysis of this data will result in greater efficiencies that will not only lead to changes in manufacturing processes but transform the very meaning of manufacturing itself, redefining it as an endeavor that takes place in settings and at scales of all kinds—from an inventor’s home office to an aeronautical engineering facility.
A key resource that the University contributes to DMDII is its partnership with the National Center for Super-computing Applications. NCSA is keeper of the formidable Blue Waters, a supercomputer (housed on the Urbana campus) so fast that in one second it can run the same number of calculations that a human with a calculator would require 32 million years to do. Such power allows measurement-intensive modeling of complex systems of all kinds, from virus cells to hurricanes to, yes, manufacturing processes. Another valuable University resource is the UIC Electronic Visualization Lab, which can render data-intensive computer models graphically, making the information easier to understand and analyze. Such capability will create online environments where designers and engineers can follow the product lifecycle from design through manufacture, assembly, delivery and use. Variables ranging from the size of an engine bolt to the shape of a fuselage to wind speed and drag can be virtually tweaked and tested. Manufacturers will be able to reduce and even eliminate time-consuming and expensive prototypes and field testing.
Moreover, the vision of digital manufacturing is writ small as well as large. “Digital manufacturing will allow communities throughout the Midwest, particularly here in Illinois, to contribute to a larger economy, whether it’s down the street or across the country,” says Larry Schook, vice president for research, U of I. “We’ve really believed in this and built [DMDII] to…support the ability of small towns, small companies to compete and maintain sustainable communities. It’s not all about big companies and big cities.”
A nation of innovators
Obama’s announcement of DoD funding for DMDII took place at the White House on Feb. 25, 2014. Those on hand for the good news included Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk. Among the University dignitaries were U of I President Robert Easter, phd ’76 ui, U of I Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise and U of I College of Engineering Dean Andreas Cangellaris, as well as King and Nowinski.
But the buzz about the lab long predated the award announcement. DMDII is the fourth in a series of 45 proposed technology innovation institutes modeled on the 60 Fraunhofer institutes that help power Germany’s manufacturing-intensive economy. “I think that digital manufacturing is something we can do that nobody can compete with us,” King notes. “We are a nation of innovators. We are a nation of tinkerers and app creators.
“What digital manufacturing offers is the potential to get the power of people and American innovation connected to the world of manufacturing.”
Schook, Nowinski and others from UI Labs began building a consortium of partners—many of whom were already engaged with NCSA—in the summer of 2012. In addition to expressing interest in modeling, simulation and design, Nowinski says, the group was “talking about advanced analytics and intelligent machines and even cyber-physical security.”
“It also became increasingly clear that digital connectedness among the members of the manufacturing ecosystem was an essential component,” says Nowinski. Partnerships were formed with the state and the city of Chicago, too.
Meanwhile, King—with the help of 30 partners from groups across the University—set about shaping a U of I-caliber vision for DMDII. The effort was undertaken in response to the federal government’s call for proposals for a Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute. After the proposal was submitted in May 2013, it was painstakingly evaluated by a team of federal administrators, who also reviewed competing proposals from dozens of other institutions. The process took almost a year and, as it progressed, support for the U of I burgeoned.
U of I administrators, including Schook and Federal Relations Director Jon Pyatt ’94 media, approached U.S. Rep. Cheri Callahan Bustos, ma ’85 uis. Bustos recalls being “completely sold on the idea from the start.” Last summer, privileged with a ride aboard U.S. Marine I with Obama, Bustos devoted her precious face time with him to advocate that the technology hub go to the U of I.
“I told him that the paperwork for the proposal would be coming across his desk,” Bustos recalls. “He said, ‘Illinois is my home state, so of course I will take a very hard look at it.’” She then joined forces with U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis to craft a letter to U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in support of the proposal. The letter garnered the unanimous signatures of the 18-member Illinois Congressional delegation.
“Creating manufacturing jobs and innovative approaches to digital manufacturing isn’t a Republican or Democrat idea. It’s common sense,” Davis observes. “Illinois has lost 130,000 manufacturing jobs over the last 10 years. This is a unique example where the federal government can come in and be a willing partner with the private sector to encourage more innovative approaches to manufacturing.”
More than 1,000 members of Illinois Connection—the government advocacy arm of the University of Illinois Alumni Association—wrote legislators in support of the proposal. “When we got the news that the proposal had been funded, I said, ‘Wow! This is a great example of how the stars can align,’” says Donovan Pepper ’94 UIS, MA ’96 UIS, who chairs the UI Alumni Association’s advocacy committee. “The leadership of the University, public and private institutions, the city of Chicago, the state of Illinois and our Alumni Association grass-roots advocates all reached out and communicated the importance of the grant to the Illinois delegation and the White House.”
Adds U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin: “As chair of the Senate subcommittee that controls defense spending, I spoke often with officials at the highest levels of the Dept. of Defense and the White House about the Lab before the decision was made, and they were universally impressed by the high quality of Illinois’ application.”
A Facebook for manufacturers
As well as resources, expertise and funding, a crucial factor in the proposal’s success was its provision for sharing the work of the new venture through a Digital Manufacturing Commons. Based on a platform contributed by consortium partner GE, the Commons is an open-source online platform that allows users to share and model information about what happens, end to end, when things are made. It’s been described by Nowinski as a “Facebook for manufacturers”—a virtual environment in which to post and share information about processes that take place in settings ranging from the design studio and the factory floor to shipping facilities, warehouses and the field. The Digital Manufacturing Commons is expected to become a powerful tool to amass and exchange data and build collaborative ties among industry partners.
“The Digital Manufacturing Commons is a way that you can connect all the data that’s generated at all the different parts of the product life cycle,” King says. “You can look at the data and connect it all the way back to the data that was generated while you were assembling and doing qualification, and even all the way back to your first idea written on the back of a paper napkin.”
DMC also will be invaluable in training a new generation of factory workers in the revolutionary tools of digital manufacturing—such as smartphones and tablets that will facilitate rapid decision-making on the shop floor—as well as the analysts who will interpret the vast amounts of data generated by manufacturing processes.
Milos Zefran, UIC professor of engineering—and a partner in shaping King’s proposal—notes that “the manufacturing jobs we are losing are unskilled, but highly skilled jobs are returning to the States. We are still the leader. We need to lead and provide workers and students with specialized training so they can remain on the leading edge.” Such training will extend to teachers at area community colleges and high schools, who will then pass their expertise along to students. The teacher training will be monitored through Project Lead the Way, an outreach program for high school teachers offered by the UIC College of Engineering’s Dept. of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
“That’s part of what we’re supposed to be doing—to make sure that the work force is there,” King says. “Something that every one of our industry partners has said to us is that ‘the technology is great, and we want it. But the only way that it matters to us is if you get the people part right.’”
In the near future, announcements of specific manufacturing projects with top-tier partners in the DMDII consortium are expected. At present, “there is a lot of emphasis early on the Dept. of Defense,” Schook says. “Here in Illinois, we have many companies that are in the DoD pipeline making parts and supplies for Rolls Royce jet engines and General Electric helicopter engines.”
Nowinski adds, “We are the flagship for digital manufacturing in the U.S. We are just at the beginning, and we are looking forward to onboarding new members and new network partners as we launch the Digital Lab.”
The future lands on Goose Island
This fall, the Digital Manufacturing Lab will move to Goose Island—an enclave on the Chicago River on the city’s North Side. Its new home will be located in the former Republic Windows Factory. “This is an old factory that was built as part of the last Industrial Revolution,” King notes. “And here we’re going to turn it into a digital manufacturing demonstration facility” to help lead the next Industrial Revolution.
For King, the coming transformation of factory into lab is a profound manifestation of the economic and social benefits of digital manufacturing. “People have a deep resonance with manufacturing and American prosperity in the middle class, and what has happened during the last decades. I can’t drive home without going past a factory that is not being used,” he says. “The opportunity to lead a revival in manufacturing—even the possibility of having a revival in manufacturing—taps into that. It’s very powerful.”
What’s equally powerful is the ubiquity of the digital technology that will enable the coming revolution. “It’s the smartphone and the app store and the social network and the youthful, innovative creativity that is exciting,” King says.
“We’re telling this entirely new story that taps into that first narrative about American prosperity and the middle class, and now combines it in a completely new way with the excitement of this new economy.”