Chicago Facility Is First Advanced-Manufacturing Institute To Have Funding Follow-On

President Obama’s approach to promoting manufacturing was vastly different than President Trump’s is, but at least one aspect of Obama’s manufacturing-policy legacy will live on: a federally bankrolled program to advance digital manufacturing at a high-tech research facility in the ex-president’s hometown.

The Digital Manufacturing and Design Institute (DMDII) by UI Labs on Goose Island in Chicago has received new funding from the Defense Department that will stretch out for as long as five years and allow staff to continue to conduct more than 60 research projects on military-oriented aims including using artificial-intelligence tools to improve welding in factories and digitizing the process of making computer circuit boards from design through manufacturing.

It’s been in operation for five years already, running on a $70 million grant from the Defense Department with the goal of building out the concept of a software-based digital supply chain. More than 300 corporate and university partners – including McKinsey & Co., Siemens, Rolls Royce, Dow Chemical, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Caterpillar, Deere and Illinois Tool Works – pay $200,000 or $400,000 a year to associate with DMDII and its research.

Now DMDII has become the first advanced-manufacturing institute to get follow-on funding, thanks in part to the effectiveness of Illinois representatives on Capitol Hill. The Defense Department “is doubling down,” Caralynn Nowinski Collens, CEO of UI Labs, told Crain’s Chicago Business. “We’re doing something right.”

DMDII is one of 14 advanced-manufacturing institutes that Obama created beginning during his first term to boost crucial future technologies while the United States was still climbing out of the Great Recession. Other institutes include one for power electronics in Raleigh, N.C.; one for use of lightweight metals in Detroit; and one for advanced composites manufacturing in Knoxville, Tenn.

A study by Deloitte, funded by the Defense Department in 2017, found that the first eight manufacturing institutes had “created a critical mass of valuable connections among 1,200 participating companies, universities and government agencies.

“Those connections are accelerating the innovation needed to develop new products and markets, helping alleviate a shortage of technically trained manufacturing workers, and building a sustainable national manufacturing research infrastructure,” Manufacturing USA, the federal network in charge of the institutes, said in a press release.

The evaluation found “numerous examples of companies connecting and working together in ways that would not have occurred independent of the institutes,” through various projects that were helping to reduce the costs and risks in experimentation.

The Manufacturing USA institutes such as Goose Island have come to address the so-called “valley of death” between research and commercialization by convening members that conduct work along different parts of the R&D spectrum and reducing risks.

Another major focus is workforce development in the wake of the rising skills deficit in American manufacturing because of baby-boomer retirements, the growing complexity of manufacturing work, a lack of STEM skills, and young workers’ poor perceptions of manufacturing.

“There are early signs that the institutes are reaching ‘tipping points’ where the organizations see membership as necessary to their own success and seek out membership without being prompted,” the study’s authors said.

Read more: Skills Gap A Major Barrier To Expanded Use Of Additive Manufacturing

Dale Buss: Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other business publications. He lives in Michigan.