Research hub big step forward

A winning grant application opens up a whole new world of possibilities.

The public-private research partnership that will be based in Chicago and overseen by UI Labs lays the groundwork for achieving tremendous efficiencies in the manufacturing process, boosting job creation and developing world-changing innovation.

To put it simply, it's a big deal. How big remains to be determined.

But the reaction to establishing a digital manufacturing hub in Chicago ranges from the almost giddy to supremely confident.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel describes the $320 million project funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, the state of Illinois and city of Chicago and scores of private businesses as "Olympic gold" while University of Illinois College of Engineering Dean Andreas Cangellaris calls it a "game changer."

All adjectives aside, plans call for a tremendous concentration of public and private resources aimed at using computer power to identify and solve general manufacturing problems as well as assist specific projects.

Partners in this joint venture include a who's who of major corporations (General Electric, Lockheed Martin and Proctor & Gamble) and major research universities (the UI, Purdue, Michigan and University of Chicago), the idea being that collaboration can achieve for all what would be impossible for individual entities to do on their own.

Sophisticated research is crucial to advancement, but it's also hugely expensive. Major corporations devote huge sums to investing in their futures, but not everyone can afford their own version of Bell Labs.

What's proposed in the Digital Lab for Manufacturing is the kind of joint effort that serves both public and private interests. The Chicago-based operation will be one of a series of research hubs (others are planned for Detroit, Mich., Youngstown, Ohio, and Raleigh-Durham, N.C.) as well as the culmination of Mayor Emanuel's professed desire to turn the Windy City into a high-tech mecca and the University of Illinois' interest in leading that renaissance.

How will it all work? Overseen by UI Labs, a nonprofit affiliated with the University of Illinois, the hub will direct research performed across the country. Key to many of the projects will be the computer power available at our universities. Suffice it to say, ambitions are grand.

"We're going to connect all parts of the supply chain. It's not just about research. It's about designing and commercialization, about getting tools to the marketplace," said Caralynn Nowinski, UI Labs interim director.

What's especially exciting is that talented people at the University of Illinois will be right in the thick of it. To what degree is yet to be determined, but the prospects at being on the ground floor of this grand adventure are mouth-watering.

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