The University of Illinois doesn’t often buddy up with the University of Iowa, just as Rolls-Royce doesn’t often volunteer to hold hands with General Electric.
But that’s exactly the kind of scenario the Digital Lab for Manufacturing -- a three-way partnership among academic institutions, manufacturing companies and the government -- envisions, executives said Monday during a panel discussion at the University of Chicago’s Gleacher Center.
Chicago secured $70 million from the Defense Department in February to build a digital manufacturing lab on the northern end of Goose Island. The lab will operate as a research and development center, teaming up with software companies and universities to help solve widespread manufacturing problems faster with cutting-edge technology.
The idea is that the lab will spur innovation in manufacturing, which could help create jobs in an economic sector that has lost many to offshoring. It is one of the first of 45 labs planned by the president to put the country at the forefront of manufacturing.
The Defense Department money will be administered over five years. The state also contributed $16 million for the lab, the city added $10 million and various companies contributed cash and services to bring the total commitment to $320 million.
“We can get there quicker and at less cost,” said Daniel Hartman, a Rolls-Royce manager who will join the Digital Lab for Manufacturing.
But questions abound: Will companies actually be able to work together? Who owns intellectual property?
“We’re trying to do something that hasn’t really been done on this scale,” said Caralynn Nowinski, UI Labs’ chief operating officer and interim executive director. “We have the benefit of a lot of people helping us think through this, but a lot of this is new. We’re designing this together. … There are going to be challenges along the way.”
Many major contributors to the lab are defense contractors, who will have sway in which projects the lab pursues. Chicago-based Boeing, Moline-based Deere and Peoria-based Caterpillar are among some of the lab’s largest backers.
Dean Bartles, a former executive with General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems, a company that that supplies the U.S. military, will be the lab’s executive director.
The lab will have tiered membership, with a key perk the ability to tap into some of the most powerful supercomputing in the world at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Nowinski said on a day-to-day basis, the institute will serve as a place where researchers show off their advances and where entrepreneurs seek out ideas for new companies. It will also be a place for workforce training and development.
The lab plans to employ 80 to 100 people by the end of its first year and become self-sustaining through royalties, licensing fees and consulting revenue.
Naresh Shah, senior director of operations for UI Labs, which will manage the lab, said his team is anticipating an expansion in funding in the ballpark of $10 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, commonly known as DARPA.
“One of the core pieces … was to bring in new government contracts,” said Nowinski. “So we’ll be working to bring in a number of projects. We think this will be the first of many.”
Chicago deputy mayor Steve Koch said the city will consider the lab’s success patiently.
“Our return will be over a period of time,” Koch said. “It’s not going to be instantaneous.”
©2014 the Chicago Tribune