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Northwestern Helps Chicago Secure Multimillion-Dollar Lab

Northwestern will contribute to cutting edge innovation in digital manufacturing field

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February 25, 2014 | by Erin White

EVANSTON, Ill. --- A $70 million federal grant announced today (Feb. 25) will help position Chicago as a national hub for digital manufacturing and bring cutting edge research and innovation opportunities to the Northwestern University community.

The grant was awarded to UI LABS, a Chicago-based consortium of researchers that includes Northwestern faculty. The government funds will be matched by contributions from the more than 500 companies, organizations, academic, government and community partners that worked together to bring the opportunity to Chicago.

Northwestern was one of the founding partners in the initiative, which is regionally anchored in the Midwest but also has partners in states ranging from New York to Texas and Colorado to Oregon.

“Once again, Northwestern is playing a significant role in a large consortium that is based in Illinois but with national collaborators,” said Jay Walsh, vice president for research at Northwestern. “We worked closely with the UI LABS-led team in developing the winning proposal. This now-funded grant will give our faculty and students tremendous opportunities to advance design and manufacturing via partnerships both with academic peers and -- importantly -- with a set of industrial partners whose products and processes have impact broadly across society.”

The goal of this five-year, U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) grant, announced Feb. 25 by President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony, is to re-invigorate U.S. manufacturing, create new jobs and economic development, and spur future innovation through the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation (DMDI) Institute.

Combined with an expected $250 million in additional funding from 40 industry partners and some 30 academic, government and community partners, including 23 universities, the project will fund a DMDI institute with $320 million in all.

The research for this project will be centered at a new space called the Digital Lab, under the direction of UI LABS. The Digital Lab will be the nation’s flagship research institute for digital manufacturing and design innovation, applying cutting-edge technologies to reduce the time and cost of manufacturing, strengthen the capabilities of the U.S. supply chain and reduce acquisition costs for DoD.

The Digital Lab will establish new projects on applied research with industrial partners, course development and workforce development through a competitive process, which provides opportunities for Northwestern faculty to become involved in their areas of interest.

Digital manufacturing is the use of an integrated, computer-based system comprised of simulation, three-dimensional (3D) visualization, analytics and various collaboration tools to create product and manufacturing process definitions simultaneously.

“Engineering researchers continuously look for opportunities and avenues to develop innovative solutions, increase efficiencies and address the world’s most pressing needs,” said Julio M. Ottino, dean of the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern. “We are thrilled to have the opportunity to give our researchers the space, creativity and collaborative connections they need to bring digital manufacturing to the next level.”

Kornel Ehmann and Jian Cao, professors in the department of mechanical engineering at McCormick and globally recognized leaders in manufacturing will provide technical leadership to the Digital Lab, which has three major technical thrust areas: advanced manufacturing enterprise, intelligent machines and advanced analysis.

The 18-month effort to develop the vision and plans for the Digital Lab was steered by a dedicated core team of individuals from UI LABS, the Office of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Office of Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, and World Business Chicago. The Illinois Science & Technology Coalition, the University of Illinois, Northwestern University, and the University of Chicago also made significant contributions as members of the core planning team.

Northwestern’s Innovation and New Ventures Office, led by Alicia Loffler, and McCormick’s Office of Corporate Relations, led by Richard (“Chip”) Hay, Jr., played a critical role in helping the Digital Lab to shape the IP agreement and to develop industrial relationships.

Jennifer Kunde of Northwestern’s Government Relations Office, played a critical role contributing to and strengthening Northwestern’s relationship with city, state and federal governments. More than 10 faculty members from McCormick contributed to the technical concept of DMDI.

In addition to the DMDI award, President Obama announced at the same event the Lightweight and Modern Metals Manufacturing Innovation (LM3I) won by the Advanced Lightweight Material Manufacturing Innovation Institute (ALMMII) based in Detroit.

Northwestern also is a partner at LM3I, represented by professor Greg Olson who will provide technical leadership in the area of Novel Materials and two Northwestern startups QuesTek Innovations LLC and Scimplicity.

During the grant application process, Northwestern's Office of STEM Education Partnerships (OSEP) reached out to its network to recruit teachers and schools that were interested in helping to translate innovations from this new lab into curriculum pathways for K-20. 

“The strong outpouring of local school support helped demonstrate the enthusiasm and capability of the Digital Lab community in Chicago for participating in the lab and bringing these emerging manufacturing technologies and skills into area classrooms,” said Kemi Jona, director of OSEP and research professor of learning sciences and computer science at Northwestern.