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NIU tapped for role in $320 million Digital Lab

February 25, 2014

Digital Lab for Manufacturing logoNorthern Illinois University officials are excited about the university’s developing role in a planned $320 million Digital Lab for Manufacturing, announced today by President Obama in an event at the White House.

To be built on Goose Island in Chicago, the Digital Lab will bring together industry, academia and government partners. Obama envisions the Digital Lab as the nation’s flagship research institute for digital manufacturing – a world-class, first-of-its-kind manufacturing hub with the capabilities, innovation and collaboration necessary to transform American manufacturing.

“This is where the brains and brawn will come together: patents, research and new ways of manufacturing,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel told Crain’s Chicago Business.

The laboratory will be managed by University of Illinois-affiliated UI Labs, a Chicago-based research and commercialization collaborative. Its proposal reportedly won out over others from such states as Alabama, California and Massachusetts.

The initiative is expected to significantly raise the Chicago region’s profile for cutting-edge manufacturing, an area of expertise and interest for NIU’s College of Engineering and Engineering Technology (CEET).

UI Labs logo“There isn’t a better place in the country to host a manufacturing site like this than northern Illinois,” U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Channahon) said.

“With top research universities like NIU, access to key transportation and shipping hubs such as Rockford International Airport, and a solid manufacturing presence, it’s clear why Illinois won out. I was glad to join my colleagues in expressing our support for this site, and I look forward to seeing the advances in manufacturing and new jobs that will come with it.”

Although word of the competitive award spread to the media this past weekend, Obama made the announcement official this afternoon at the White House. The Digital Lab will receive a $70 million award from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to tackle manufacturing challenges of the DoD and industry.

Another $250 million in funding will come from state and private sources. That includes a cost-share commitment of at least $1.5 million from NIU over five years, for projects that align with CEET expertise. NIU’s investment will be matched dollar for dollar.

The Digital Lab will be an applied research institute. It will both develop and demonstrate digital manufacturing technologies and deploy and commercialize these technologies across key manufacturing industries.

Promod Vohra

Dean Promod Vohra

Nearly two dozen universities are involved in the initiative, ranging from the University of Chicago and Northwestern University to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Texas-Austin. The project also boasts more than 40 industry partners, including General Electric, Rolls-Royce, Procter & Gamble, Dow, Lockheed Martin and Siemens.

“What a great honor to be part of such an initiative coming out of the White House,” NIU CEET Dean Promod Vohra said. “We remain committed to innovation, global competitiveness, manufacturing optimization and to the use of technology to advance manufacturing in the U.S. We will leverage our partnership with the manufacturing community in the region to quickly advance the objectives of the grant.”

Digital manufacturing is the application of computing and data analytics to improve manufacturing machines and factories.

Just this past fall, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology awarded a $2.4 million grant to NIU’s engineering college to develop tools used in 3-D printing. Also known as additive manufacturing, 3-D printing includes a group of new technologies that build up objects, usually by laying down many thin layers on top of each other.

Vohra noted that, with the Digital Lab announcement, his college has now received three major grants to focus on building partnerships with peer institutions, business and industry.

“NIU President Doug Baker has charged us all to build communities inside and outside of NIU,” Vohra said. “This project is a classic example of building an engineering community with NIU-CEET as an active participant in addressing manufacturing issues across the nation and in our region.”

Lesley Rigg

Lesley Rigg

Lesley Rigg, the university’s interim vice president for Research and Graduate Studies, said the Digital Lab will create opportunities for engineering faculty and students alike.

“It will allow us to be even more engaged in the region in digital manufacturing, to augment existing collaborations, to develop new partnerships and to further engage faculty and students with industry as we develop a 21st-century global digital manufacturing supply chain,” she said.

Rigg said NIU will contribute to programs and projects relevant to CEET’s areas expertise as they become available. “We will be strategically partnering with targeted opportunities aligned with our collaborative potential,” she said.

CEET Associate Dean Mansour Tahernezhadi said the college worked with UI Labs on the Digital Lab proposal. NIU has a long history in manufacturing training and outreach with ongoing programs addressing education and workforce development.

“Use of intelligent manufacturing equipment is severely limited if the manufacturers are not able to train or acquire skilled technicians to operate these sophisticated machines making very sophisticated parts,” Tahernezhadi said.

Building on the success of past outreach programs, including work with Rockford manufacturers, Tahernezhadi envisions CEET’s involvement with the Digital Lab extending to running certification courses for manufacturing employees and to specialized training for machining, laser-cladding and wind turbine technicians.

Mansour Tahernezhadi

Mansour Tahernezhadi

“Students will be involved in our efforts, so along the way we will be training the next generation of engineers – graduates equipped with the latest knowledge and cutting-edge skills and who have experience working with the region’s manufacturers,” Tahernezhadi said.

President Obama expects the Digital Lab’s applied research to create thousands of jobs in advanced manufacturing fields and make the U.S. economy more competitive, adding billions of dollars of value to the DoD and U.S. industrial base.

“This new Digital Lab has the potential to revolutionize the way the United States approaches manufacturing, and a major effort will be centered in Illinois,” U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) said.

“Partners from across the state including the Quad Cities Manufacturing Laboratory, the Blue Waters Supercomputer at the University of Illinois, Northwestern University, the Illinois Institute of Technology, the University of Chicago, Southern Illinois University, Northern Illinois University and the City of Chicago will be at the forefront of innovative, industry-driven research that will make America more competitive on the global stage. Illinois will undoubtedly benefit from the thousands of jobs created through this research.”