That’s why a new outfit in Chicago, the Digital Manufacturing and Design Institute, is making a specific outreach to SMEs in the U.S. supply chain, in addition to the Caterpillars and Lockheed Martins of the world. The institute—in large part funded earlier this year when Chicago won a $70-million grant from the Pentagon—is charged with spearheading revitalization of the nation’s manufacturing base.
And helping companies and their supply chains to think digitally is the most important duty of the new institute. That means helping and encouraging enterprises of all sizes to act digitally by using data to inform efficient manufacturing processes and by replacing blueprints with 3D files, reported Crain’s Chicago Business.
Executive Director Dean Bartles told the publication that one key will be making the cost of joining the organization low enough to attract the SMEs that often remain on the fringes of advanced manufacturing because of financial barriers to entry. A membership fee of as little as $500, he believes, will help ensure that even the smallest of manufacturers has access to the lab.
“You’ve heard of the term ‘herding cats’?” Bartles told Crain’s. “That’s very, very much what it’s like” to get SMEs to become aware of and consider joining such an organization. Another issue he faces is getting large manufacturers as well as smaller enterprises to collaborate with the lab to develop and commercialize the intellectual property that may grow out of its research.
The Chicago Institute is one of several that has been taking shape under a new program launched by the Obama administration in 2012. The purpose of the program is to create Manufacturing Innovation Institutes—public-private hubs comprised of industry leaders, universities, and the federal government working together to advance manufacturing.
The administration has said that it hopes eventually to establish a network of 45 institutes across the United States, up from its original goal of 15, according to Huffington Post. There’s also one taking shape near Detroit, for example, that is looking at lightweight materials and their applications. Germany’s Fraunhofer Society, a similar network of 67 institutes, is a partial model for the U.S. initiative, the publication said.