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Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).

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URBANA — The University of Illinois is creating a $100 million center for smart technology at the Urbana campus in partnership with FoxConn Interconnect Technologies and the UI’s Discovery Partners Institute, to be funded in part by state money allocated for the DPI initiative.

The Center for Networked Intelligent Components in the Grainger College of Engineering will be a global hub for “reconfigurable” smart technology that will drive manufacturing plants, hospitals, autonomous vehicles and smart homes of the future, the UI said in a joint announcement with the company on Tuesday.

FoxConn Interconnect has committed $50 million over 10 years to support programs and research at the center, dubbed “C-NICE.”

The UI will invest $50 million to expand facilities for the center and hire faculty to conduct research. Some of that money will come from the $500 million in state capital funding slated for DPI and the companion Illinois Innovation Network, said engineering Dean Rashid Bashir.

Teams of researchers from the UI and FoxConn Interconnect, which makes sensors for electronics, will work together on projects funded annually.

The center initially will be headquartered in the college’s Coordinated Science Laboratory, one of nation’s oldest interdisciplinary university research laboratories. Placid Ferreira, professor of mechanical science and engineering, will be its founding director.

Bashir said FoxConn Interconnect has had a presence in the UI Research Park for many years and has funded individual faculty research.

The CEO of the Taiwanese-based company is Sidney Lu, a 1981 UI graduate and major donor to the university who contributed $21.5 million for a renovation of the Mechanical Engineering Building.

Partnering with industry

About two years ago, when FoxConn Interconnect became a public company, Bashir and others started talking with Lu about larger-scale partnerships, he said. The company’s engineers met with faculty members and “found many synergies” in research and development in mechanical engineering, computer science, and electrical and computer engineering, Bashir said.

“By co-developing intelligent components and technologies and the ecosystem in which they operate, we can do the same for any number of devices and environments like factories, cars, homes and hospitals. The potential impact technology has on the future is limitless,” Lu said in the release.

The agreement between the UI and FoxConn Interconnect was signed this summer, Bashir said.

The company is a subsidiary of the electronics manufacturing giant FoxConn, but Bashir emphasized that it is an independent entity with its own CEO and board.

The parent company was criticized when it scaled back plans to build a $10 billion manufacturing plant with thousands of jobs in Wisconsin after winning lucrative incentives from the state.

“This is not FoxConn in Wisconsin, this is FIT,” Bashir said, using the company’s acronym. “It’s a very different partnership” involving research and development, not a manufacturing facility, he said. “They’re not setting up a plant here.”

The partnership agreement allows either party to pull out if it feels the other isn’t living up to the terms of the agreement, Bashir said.

“There are checks in place along the way to decide how to continue the partnership, or not,” he said.

The campus and college have had other industry partnerships before, with IBM, Boeing and other firms, but this is “certainly one of the larger ones,” Bashir said.

He would like to see more in the future, with companies of all sizes, to foster “mission-driven” translational research that benefits industry and the economy.

The partnership is a good fit with the college’s strengths in smart technology, he said.

State support ‘critical’

Funded projects will include work to advance aspects of the company’s core business in the computing and communication infrastructure that make up the backbone of the “Internet of Things” — computing devices embedded in refrigerators and other everyday objects, officials said.

Other projects could include precision components, such as electronic connectors like those used in HDMI cables, antennas for cellphones, sensors found in self-parking cars and parts used in digital cameras. Future projects will explore next-generation communications infrastructure, consumer electronics and mobile devices.

Several projects are about to get under way, and others will begin in December, officials said. The initial round will include the development of new measurement techniques for nanoscale components, new methods for capturing and curating manufacturing data, safe robot-human interaction, and new sensors and data-processing techniques.

Bashir said the state’s financial support for the project was “critical.”

“It would not happen without that piece,” he said.

Likewise, the grants promised by FoxConn Interconnect will count toward the private matching funds required by the state before the DPI money is released. He hopes Tuesday’s announcement will move that process along.

“Getting this has actually helped the overall case” for DPI and the innovation network, he said.

State officials were kept apprised of the plans for the new center through interim DPI Director Bill Sanders, who announced Monday he is leaving for a job at Carnegie Mellon University.

Bashir said the project is an example of the kinds of collaborations “we need to do” to get more companies to come to Urbana and other hubs on the statewide innovation network.

Original story:

URBANA — A new partnership between FoxConn Interconnect Technology and the University of Illinois will establish a $100 million center for smart technology at the UI Grainger College of Engineering.

The Center for Networked Intelligent Components will be a global hub for  “reconfigurable” smart technology that will drive manufacturing plants, hospitals, autonomous vehicles and smart homes of the future, the UI said in a joint announcement with the company on Tuesday.

The center will be headquartered in the college’s Coordinated Science Laboratory, one of nation’s oldest interdisciplinary university research laboratories. Placid Ferreira, professor of mechanical science and engineering, will be its founding director.

Sidney Lu

Sidney Lu

FoxConn Interconnect Technology has committed $50 million over 10 years to support programs and research at the center.

The UI will invest $50 million to expand facilities for the new center and hire faculty to conduct research, in partnership with the new Discovery Partners Institute and Illinois Innovation Network.

Teams of researchers from FoxConn Interconnect and the UI will work together on projects chosen and funded on an annual basis.

The CEO of the Taiwanese-based company is Sidney Lu, a UI alumnus and longtime donor to the university who is also funding a major renovation of the Mechanical Engineering Building.

“It’s with great excitement we announce the company that I am so proud of and the university that touched my life coming together to create the center,” Lu said in the release. “By co-developing intelligent components and technologies and the eco-system in which they operate, we can do the same for any number of devices and environments like factories, cars, homes and hospitals. The potential impact technology has on the future is limitless.”

Projects will include work to advance aspects of FoxConn Interconnect’s core businesses for the computing, communication and sensing infrastructure that make up the backbone of the “Internet of Things,” computing devices embedded in everyday objects, officials said.

Other projects could include precision components, such as electronic connectors like those used in HDMI cables, antennas for cell phones, sensors found in self-parking cars and parts used in digital cameras. Future projects will explore next-generation communications infrastructure, consumer electronics and mobile devices.

“Intelligent components and environments are an important focus area,” engineering Dean Rashid Bashir said in the release. “As Grainger Engineering aggressively expands its basic and translational research enterprise, we will tackle what is most important to society and to our partners in industry.”

Several projects are about to get under way, and others will begin in December, officials said. The initial round will include the development of new measurement techniques for nanoscale components, new methods for capturing and curating manufacturing data, safe robot-human interaction paradigms, and new sensors and sensor data-processing techniques.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the amount of funding provided by the UI and FoxConn Interconnect Technology.

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