NIU, Rockford poised to lead ‘renaissance of American manufacturing’

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin

NIU’s deep commitment to strengthening the Rockford economy vaulted into a national spotlight Monday with the announcement that the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute will locate its first chapter in the city.

Called a “momentous day in the history of Rockford” and “a big win for the Rockford community and manufacturers across the country,” the move recognizes Rockford’s status as a leading hub of 21st century industrial technology.

Leaders of the Chicago-based institute – a collaboration with UI LABS – are working to improve the competitive edge of all U.S. manufacturers by delivering digital technologies developed as part of DMDII projects into the workplaces of small- and medium-sized manufacturers.

Manufacturers will boost their speed and return on investment by making production processes more efficient and agile, by harnessing data to gather more insightful analytics and by enhancing relationships between manufacturers, customers and suppliers.

“DMDII is a collection of members – from some of the largest corporations in the world to single-person shops and everything in between,” said Executive Director Dean L. Bartles, chief manufacturing officer for UI LABS. “We all have one thing in common: We’re innovating together so that we can all do our jobs better, faster and more cost-competitively.”

As the lead organization for the Rockford-area business and manufacturing community, NIU will work with local leadership to organize the chapter and recruit new partners.

Rockford also will serve as the model for the DMDII chapters that will open from coast to coast, sharing best practices and training the future workforce.

“This new affiliation between NIU, Rockford and DMDII promises to help all of us achieve our mutual goals,” NIU President Doug Baker said, “for enhancing the global competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing, for ensuring a steady stream of talented and creative graduates who can help keep our companies growing and for fostering a culture of innovation in which new ideas will be nurtured and new companies and jobs will be created.”

NIU President Doug Baker (right) chats with Dean L. Bartles, chief manufacturing officer of UI Labs and executive director of the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute.
NIU President Doug Baker (right) chats with Dean L. Bartles, chief manufacturing officer of UI Labs and executive director of the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute.

Rena Cotsones, NIU’s associate vice president engagement and innovation partnerships and head of the Office of Regional Engagement-Rockford, said the announcement provides “a perfect example of how the entire region wins when we collaborate effectively.”

Cotsones was credited for playing an integral role in creating and developing the DMDII chapter model and stewarding the idea to fruition.

“DMDII could have chosen anywhere in the country to place their first pilot chapter, and they chose NIU and Rockford, because we have the shared vision, expertise and partnerships in place to help them advance their goals for enhancing U.S. global competitiveness in manufacturing,” Cotsones said.

“We are delighted to lead this collaborative effort,” she added, “and we are grateful to our partners at the NIU EIGERlab, the NIU College of Engineering and Engineering Technology, the Rockford Area Economic Development Council, the Rockford Area Aerospace Network and the Rockford Chamber of Commerce Manufacturers Council.”

DMDII was founded with a $70 million from the federal government and fortified with about $250 million more from industry, academic and civic partners.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, D-East Moline, came to NIU-Rockford to praise the collaboration.

“This is about tomorrow’s jobs,” said Durbin, who spearheaded the Prairie State’s successful application to host the DMDII and move the nation into “the next generation of thinking.”

Sen. Durbin told the gathered officials, including local business leaders and elected officials from Springfield, Rockford and Boone and Winnebago counties, that he insisted then that “the conversation move beyond Chicago.”

Congresswoman Cheri Bustos
Congresswoman Cheri Bustos

Capitalizing on Rockford’s robust manufacturing economy, bolstered by nearly 700 companies in the region along with a strong presence in aerospace, makes sense to the senator. He said he sees the area’s “bedrock of higher education,” including NIU and Rock Valley College, adding to that advantage.

“I don’t just want America to lead in manufacturing around the world,” Durbin said. “I want Illinois to lead.”

Bustos, whose district includes Rockford as well as her hometown Quad Cities, which will host the second DMDII chapter, called the announcement “the next coming of the Industrial Revolution.”

“We will be ready here for the next century and what’s to come in manufacturing,” she said. “There’s trust in this community. We’ve got one of the best workforces in the country.”

For NIU, the pilot chapter multiplies opportunities for faculty of the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology to share their expertise, research and innovation with not only companies but students.

In late August, NIU launched a partnership with Rock Valley that allows students there to complete bachelor’s degrees without ever leaving the RVC campus – an initiative Durbin highlighted to news media when he applauded NIU for “finding new ways to make engineering education accessible.”

These activities are “well-aligned with the goals of DMDII and all of our aspirations for ensuring the success of the manufacturing sector,” Baker said.

“Thank you, Dr. Bartles and DMDII, for the confidence you are placing in us to help facilitate the engagement of the Rockford area in your important work,” Baker added. “And thanks to all of our partners … for what you have done, and what you are about to do, to ensure that the DMDII Rockford Chapter realizes its potential.”

“Rockford has a pioneering history in the field of manufacturing technology, contributing to countless innovations within the sector, and again, Rockford will be a pioneer,” Bartles said. “The Rockford region is poised to become a model community in the renaissance of American manufacturing.”

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