There’s a lot of talk in Illinois these days about job creation, how to attract and retain companies here, and the past and future roles of manufacturing in the state’s economy.
The new Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute coming to Chicago has the potential to redefine Illinois’ place in the global manufacturing sector and its ability to foster innovative, high-tech achievements in manufacturing.
It also will help create jobs and bridge the widening gap among people who want to work but don’t possess the types of skills needed in the modern manufacturing workplace — an issue companies and colleges have been working together to address.
“There is no question that a big piece of this initiative is how to train workers on new equipment, how to use new digital technologies and how to educate companies and their workforces about what is available in terms of cutting-edge, new technology,” said Adam Pollet, director of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
Factories no longer operate the way they did in the mid-20th century. Companies that want to compete on a national or international scale and intend to be around for the long haul are nimble, efficient, technology-driven, forward-thinking operations.
Meanwhile, for years Illinois communities have watched, devastated, as factories closed because they couldn’t keep up with changing customer needs, global competition, the expense of research and development and other demands.
President Barack Obama, Gov. Pat Quinn and a host of other officials last week announced plans for the $320 million Chicago-based hub, funded through public and private investments, and extolled its potential for Illinois and the Midwest. Three other hubs are planned, in Detroit; Youngstown, Ohio; and Raleigh-Durham, N.C.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s UI Labs and its Blue Waters supercomputer will be in the thick of it all, directing sophisticated research across the country. Blue Waters is one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world and the fastest on a university campus.
Companies all over Illinois and beyond, especially small and medium size businesses, will be able to utilize the supercomputing power and research and development expertise from U of I and elsewhere to solve some of their most perplexing manufacturing problems.
For example, Pollet said, Gold Eagle, an 80-year-old Chicago company that makes lubricants and liquid additives for machines, can’t break into the European market because its plastic bottles aren’t strong enough to pass certain tests. The company also wants to find ways to use less plastic in the bottles, make them more environmentally friendly and bring down the cost. The company wants to tap into the expertise available through DMDI to come up with design simulations for a better plastic bottle.
“It sounds mundane, but that will transform their entire business,” Pollet said. “It will increase revenue, they can hire more people, and it reduces costs for them and is better for the environment.”
DMDI stands to be a much-needed shot in the arm for the Illinois economy. More businesses may come or stay here to be near a state-of-the-art research and development hub. That means potential job growth, increased exports and more students interested in careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
Think of it as a potential Silicon Valley of the Midwest, said Mark Denzler, vice president of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association. For years, college graduates have flocked to California for state-of-the-art technology jobs. Now, students may flock to the U of I for an opportunity to be on the cutting edge of manufacturing advancements and, after graduation, settle in Illinois for related jobs.
“Kids don’t get excited about manufacturing anymore. We have a hard time showing there are futures in manufacturing and that these are high-skill jobs,” Denzler said. “I think this will really help with that. I really hope it encourages more kids to get into the math and the science and the engineering and this kind of micromanfacturing and microtechnology — it’s kind of that cool science stuff, whether it’s in biologics, medicine, pharmaceuticals or electronics.”
The potential for DMDI is breathtaking. Illinois was correct to invest in such an ambitious and potentially game-changing project for the state.
— GateHouse Media Illinois