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New Lab Could Bridge Chicago’s Manufacturing Past, Digital Age

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CHICAGO (STMW) – News that a national, digital manufacturing laboratory will be built in Chicago offers hope that the city’s once-strong manufacturing sector can be rebuilt into a powerhouse of the 21st Century, officials said.

The lab, to be built on Goose Island sometime in the near future, will offer a state-of-the art research and development facility to companies large and small, as they seek to harness the potential of so-called big data and supercomputing to solve centuries-old manufacturing dilemmas.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) discussed the new lab during a Sunday news conference held in the Merchandise Mart at 1871, a hub for digital startup companies. It will be formally presented Tuesday by President Barack Obama at the White House.

If all goes well, the brainpower it will draw to the region could help reinvigorate the city’s manufacturing sector, Emanuel said. That could also position Chicago to rival other technology hubs, like the Research Triangle in North Carolina, or Silicon Valley in California, officials said.

“This is a whole new way of manufacturing,” Emanuel said. “You have to take an idea and get it to market with speed. That is why this research capacity, from a design standpoint, is so essential to putting Chicago and Illinois at the cutting edge.”

The facility — which will be operated UI labs, a non-profit spinoff of the University of Illinois — could be the advent of a new era in manufacturing, slashing the time it takes to get new products from concept stage to storefront.

“All these [manufacturing] problems are worth revisiting with this new technology,” Bill King, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who oversaw the winning bid, told the Sun-Times by phone on Sunday.

To understand exactly what digital manufacturing is — and what kind of work will be done at the lab — it helps to look at the advent of sabermetrics in the game of baseball.

Like baseball, manufacturing can benefit by the application of rigorous and complex statistical analysis to improve performance.

But when you throw whiz-kid academics and industry professionals together in a lab and give them supercomputing power, it’s like feeding “steroids” to your data interpretation abilities, King said.

That means an engine designer “can predict the performance of how this engine will behave, simulate thousands of variations and find which ones perform the best,” King said. “It makes it much faster to get to your first working prototype.”

The lab, which will be built with $70 million grant from the Department of Defense grants and an additional $250 million in public and private sector funding, will collect and interpret and share that data — working as a clearing house for those who seek it, King said.

It will also have individual test laboratories, where manufacturers can come test out their ideas before they start to build a product, King said.

Many heavy-hitters in the industry — including Boeing, General Electric, Catepillar, and Northrop Grumman — have put money into the Chicago venture, besting other groups from New England, California and Huntsville, Ala.

The facility was hinted at in President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union speech. At the time, Obama called for the creation of three institutes to pool the resources and talents from academia, business, and local, state and federal agencies.

The goal, he said, was to spur research and development to help develop products, train students and workers and keep the U.S. high-tech and industrial base competitive.

“What we learned from the process is if, in Illinois, we work to together, then we can improve the future of our state,” said Chris Kennedy, the chairman of University of Illinois Board of Trustees.

(Source: Sun-Times Media Wire © Chicago Sun-Times 2014. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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