How do you design and make a product quickly using high-quality materials? How can you get that product quickly to your customers? And how do you make the best use of your company's resources, like the employees?
CHAMPAIGN — How do you design and make a product quickly using high-quality materials? How can you get that product quickly to your customers? And how do you make the best use of your company's resources, like the employees?
The current challenges facing American manufacturers are not so different than those that have existed since the Industrial Revolution, according to University of Illinois engineer Bill King.
"But what is new is we're living in a time where there's massive computing power available to nearly everyone. There's cloud computing, mobile computing, super computing," he said.
"The Digital Lab for Manufacturing connects new computing capabilities with the problems of manufacturers," said King on Monday, a day before the White House would officially announce Illinois won a $70 million grant to create the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute, otherwise known as the Digital Lab for Manufacturing.
That $70 million will be matched by $250 million committed to the project by dozens of other backers, including companies, the state of Illinois (Gov. Pat Quinn has pledged $16 million) and more. All told, the investment reaches $320 million.
"This is a really big project," said King, a mechanical engineering professor and director of the nano manufacturing lab at the UI's College of Engineering.
King was the technical lead on the grant proposal and will be the lab's chief technology director. (Well over 100 people contributed to the writing of the proposal, including faculty and staff in mechanical engineering, materials science, computer science, people with expertise in intelligent machine tools, software, cybersecurity and other areas, he said.)
The $70 million will be funneled to and managed by Chicago-based UI Labs, the separate nonprofit research and development organization led by the University of Illinois. UI Labs submitted the proposal and assembled a long list of collaborators, including other universities (such as the University of Michigan, Purdue University, University of Chicago), community colleges and economic development agencies — not to mention major corporations like General Electric, Rolls-Royce and Lockheed Martin.
But many of the key players in the proposal can be found on the University of Illinois campus and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the UI, where staff for decades have been working with companies on solving challenges related to product design and more.
The new Digital Lab for Manufacturing will be led by the Department of Defense and is one of several public-private institutes envisioned to drive innovation in manufacturing around the country.
"This will be a game changer," said UI College of Engineering Dean Andreas Cangellaris.
Historically, most digital aspects of manufacturing have been in the design of products or parts, said Merle Giles, director of private sector program and economic development at NCSA. Computer-aided design, or CAD, has been used by companies for decades, he said.
"But what we do in the advanced (manufacturing) space is 3-D design, not just a blueprint, which would be 2-D," Giles said.
In some industries — aerospace, for example — "the complexity of the parts are such that 3-D is required to fit all the parts together. ... We need 3-D to understand the geometry of all these parts," he said.
You need powerful computers to design and test virtual products. (And NCSA has partnered with Caterpillar, John Deere, Rolls-Royce and other companies and used its supercomputers to run product simulations.)
Because NCSA's supercomputers are so powerful, tens of thousands of variations of these products could be run before the prototype is made, King said.
King, a founder or advisor to more than a dozen early-stage technology companies, has seen first-hand how universities produce a lot of new knowledge and technology, some of which gets used and some of which goes unused. Manufacturers tend to be risk adverse and invest in only the "maturest" technology, he said.
Thus you have the "missing middle — the gap between what's coming out of our universities and what industry can pick up," King said.
That's the idea behind the digital lab, a private/public partnership where companies can pool their resources to look at things they might have been considered too risky to consider on their own, he said.
"We're going to connect all parts of the supply chain," said UI Labs interim director Caralynn Nowinski. "It's not just about research," she said. It's about designing and commercialization, about getting tools to the marketplace.
Researchers have a list of ideas and projects to pursue via the new lab. One example is the "Digital Manufacturing Commons," a software platform that can bring together all the data generated during the design and manufacturing of a product.
"Today in industry that data exists in many places, but not in a common platform to bring it all together," King said.
Once companies have that data, they can share information, analyze it and use that information to make business decisions.
"We have a suite of projects identified by industry as having market pull. We've aligned these commercial needs with the Department of Defense. What is really exciting about this is industry and DOD have a set of common problems," King said.
The digital lab will be in Chicago, but organizers have envisioned a "hub and spoke" model, Nowinski said. That means, work will be done there, on college campuses, at partners like the Quad Cities Manufacturing Lab and at the site of a manufacturer such as Caterpillar in Peoria.
Because the digital manufacturing initiative is expected to involve many UI employees, and UI Labs is a separate entity, it's not clear yet if UI employees will take leaves from their jobs to work at UI Labs, will be contractors, or there will be other arrangements.
"All that will become clearer as we move forward, as we define the engagement," Cangellaris said.