Manufacturing lab could boost UI, state
CHICAGO — A public-private manufacturing laboratory that harnesses the University of Illinois' supercomputing power promises to boost manufacturing in the state and it could also better position the university and the state to compete for big federal grants in advanced manufacturing.
However, the idea of another innovation hub headed for Chicago — not East Central Illinois — has raised the ire of at least one local politician.
In his annual State of the State address on Wednesday, Gov. Pat Quinn announced his intention to help establish the Illinois Manufacturing Laboratory, an independent, not-for-profit entity to be located in Chicago and involve the UI and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications of Urbana. Quinn pledged $5 million for the startup, and that amount would need to be matched from outside sources.
Citing the creation of 40,000 manufacturing jobs in the state since 2010, Quinn said manufacturing has been one of the leading growth sectors in Illinois.
"We're at the cutting edge of advanced manufacturing, and we need to stay there," he said in his address.
Advanced manufacturing is essentially using new technology or methods to develop new or better products.
The lab could work with 10 large manufacturing companies and more than 100 small- to medium-sized manufacturers within the first year, according to the governor's office.
The Illinois Manufacturing Laboratory will be a place "where companies — big and small — come to learn and use the world's most sophisticated tools and software," Quinn said. "As we create next-generation jobs, we must ensure that our workers are equipped for them," he said.
According to Caralynn Nowinski, the UI's associate vice president for innovation and economic development, the new lab will involve the UI's Urbana campus; the UI's Chicago campus, including its Electronic Visualization Lab; the UI's Business and Industry Services, a workforce development division under the umbrella of UI Extension and housed in Naperville. It also will involve NCSA, which is located on the Urbana-Champaign campus and supported by the university, state and federal grants.
Concerned that University of Illinois assets are being moved to Chicago, state Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, described the proposal as "like an old-fashioned land grab. This time, it's for brain power."
"What else do you want? How much more can downstate give you, Chicago?" said Rose, who described himself as being "apoplectic" when he heard about another UI laboratory destined for Chicago.
The News-Gazette first reported last fall the university's intent to build a Bell Lab-like, research and development center in the city that would involve the Urbana and Chicago campuses. The grand vision for that entity, called UI Labs, also involves piggybacking on UI successes in computer science and technology, partnering with private companies and going after federal research dollars. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his staff are on board with the UI Labs idea and Quinn visited a UI Board of Trustees meeting last month to express his support.
Since the university announced its plans for UI Labs, Peter Fox, developer of the UI Research Park in Champaign, said he has expressed his concerns about campus resources being moved outside of the community to elected officials. The research park is home to a UI business incubator, the Dow Innovation Center, Caterpillar Simulation Center and other companies.
"We need to add high-paying jobs here," Fox said about Champaign-Urbana. And those high-paying jobs tend to be in the tech industry, he said.
The research park recently welcomed the Applied Research Institute, a new entity within the College of Engineering that aims to partner with companies and federal agencies to do applied research such as designing or testing products.
Its creation has been a "great step" toward creating high-paying jobs in the community, Fox said. It's off to a great start, "but if you take your eyes off the ball, and then we focus on something different in Chicago, it takes away from the efforts in Urbana," Fox said.
Added Rose: "We're the technical hub of the Midwest in Urbana. We invented the microchip. What's wrong with what we already have? The third-fastest supercomputer in the world will be here. And we're going to go somewhere else to do this? I don't get that at all. The natural linkages are already in place in Urbana."
Adam Pollet, the acting director of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, described UI Labs and the Illinois Manufacturing Laboratory as "two very distinct initiatives."
He said the manufacturing lab is a state partnership with the university to "plant a flag" in the state, an announcement that "we're going to be a hub for workforce training and manufacturing," Pollet said. "UI Labs is a much broader concept that is about putting together a lot of different significant assets in one place to become an overarching innovation hub."
UI Labs is envisioned to have a research portfolio worth $100 million within a few years of its creation. Because organizers said UI Labs won't rely on state or university money, they recently began seeking money from venture capitalists and philanthropists.
The manufacturing lab, on the other hand, could come together within the year, according Nowinski.
The ability to organize the smaller lab swiftly could help the university and state if officials want to compete for federal grant dollars in advanced manufacturing initiatives. Last year the university and state lost a bid to establish a pilot here focused on a specific kind of advanced manufacturing called additive manufacturing, or three-dimensional printing.
Since then, officials have been talking about creating a physical place in Illinois where research and development and private sector workforce training could occur.
Last March, President Barack Obama announced $1 billion for the National Network for Advanced Manufacturing Innovation, which envisions 15 different public-private "manufacturing innovation institutes" around the U.S. that would act as regional "hubs" for manufacturing.
In August, the government announced the first one — on additive manufacturing — would be located in Youngstown, Ohio. The winning bid for the pilot center was put together by nine universities, including Carnegie Mellon and Penn State; 40 different companies, such as Johnson Controls, Honeywell and General Electric; plus several community colleges and nonprofits.
"If we want to capture large federal dollars, we have to have a strong physical location and a program that really marries these two elements of workforce training and research and development in order to build a larger program," Pollet said.
The state's $5 million will primarily be spent on the physical space and equipment needed in a location to be determined in the Chicago.
Involving private business in the endeavor will be critical, he said. Officials are in talks with some potential partners, but Pollet declined to name any companies at this time.
At the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in Urbana, staff have worked for years with global manufacturers like Deere, Caterpillar, Boeing and others on contractual projects, joint research and other partnerships.
Merle Giles, NCSA's director of the private sector program and economic development, said he and his team focus on trying to understand the bottlenecks in the advanced manufacturing process.
NCSA's supercomputers are located in Champaign-Urbana but are accessible from a distance, Giles said.
"What we've learned in the private-sector program is there's no substitute for face-to-face relationships and hands-on training and education. And what we're seeing demand for is a place where we can bridge this physical manufacturing space with real live access to these digital tools," Giles said.
NCSA also is involved in the National Digital Engineering and Manufacturing Consortium, or NDEMC, a group that works to develop software, tap into supercomputing power and train small- and medium-sized manufacturers in using technology.
"What we've observed with NDEMC and with our partnership community is there's an increasingly valuable intersection between manufacturing and advanced modeling and simulation. Some would call this advanced manufacturing. ... We do know the advanced modeling and simulations we provide and improve ... are crucial to making the manufacturer more productive," Giles said.
The manufacturing sector in Illinois employs about 600,000 workers and makes up 12.4 percent of the state's Gross Domestic Product, according to the Illinois Manufacturers' Association.
The association issued a statement after Quinn's address saying the laboratory will allow manufacturers to partner with the university and others to help ideas become products.
"While this new laboratory will be a hub of research and development, Gov. Quinn and lawmakers should work with the IMA and business community and take the additional step of modernizing and making the research and development tax credit permanent in Illinois," said Greg Baise, president and CEO of the Illinois Manufacturers' Association in a statement.
News-Gazette staff writer Tom Kacich contributed to this report.