Transforming American Manufacturing ...

GTC-150511Green Tech Chicago got invited to come out to the Grand Opening event for the new U+I Labs yesterday morning out on Goose Island (which seems to be becoming such a major center for R&D facilities that one of the speakers joked about re-naming it “Innovation Island”). Frankly, from the preliminary invite materials, I was expecting a fairly low-key event … but it was anything but! The Governor was there, the Mayor was there, one Senator was there, a handful or so of area Congressmen were there, plus Aldermen, assorted City Department heads, and various University and Industry big-wigs (oh, and pretty much all the media). By the way, that’s what the U+I in the name stands for: University & Industry. They could have thrown in “G” for Government as well, as it appears that both the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy have provided significant funding for the project (but “GUI Labs” would imply something completely different, wouldn’t it?).

I had really hoped to have been able to come out of this with an “elevator speech” regarding what the U+I Labs’ raison d’être is, but it’s so “big and complicated” that it’s hard to get there. They have a Venn diagram in a promotional piece which shows U+I Labs at the center intersection of University, Industry, and Civic circles … which at least gives you some indication … plus they list a “potfolio of labs” (just 2 at the moment), which is the main functioning of the project. These two are CityWorks, “the global hub for urban infrastructure innovation”, and DMDII – the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute … which appears to be taking up most of the floor space, with zones for Multi-Axis Complex Machining, Standard Machining, Emerging Technologies, Metrology Lab, Welding and Fabrication, Micro Technology, and Electronics & Assembly (some of these can be seen in action briefly in the video). The DMDII is a huge undertaking, as one can get from this bit from the U+I Labs site (bolding mine):

Our first lab – the national Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute – brings together 40+ global manufacturing and technology companies with 30+ university, government and community partners to launch this $320M institute. DMDII has buy-in from more than 500 supporting organizations, and more than a dozen leading companies have invested over a million dollars.

DMDII is reinventing manufacturing for the 21st century. Through applied research and demonstration projects, training and workforce development, and education and outreach, it will infuse advanced digital technologies and big data into today’s manufacturing practices to ensure America will remain on the cutting edge – creating new jobs and strengthening the economy.

While having fewer players involved, the vision of CityWorks is certainly impressive, as you can tell from this statement on their site:

Urban infrastructure forms the backbone of our cities, our economy, and society; however, massive scale and complexity have limited our ability to monitor and improve its performance. From water security to energy burdens, from multi‐modal congestion to first responder deployment, the need for creative new approaches that are effective at city scale is greater than ever. To achieve a sustainable platform for economic innovation and livability, we must be smart about how we build, update, and use urban infrastructure, which itself must become “smart” – combining new ideas in infrastructure design, materials, and management with advances in computing and data analysis.

CityWorks will bring organizations together to facilitate cross-sector collaboration among companies and build on the expertise and advances from Illinois universities and national labs, with deep input and involvement from the City of Chicago.

CityWorks will enable experiments at scale to develop real solutions for the marketplace, so that, if successful, they can continue and be extended to have impact in other cities.

Given all of the above, I was probably putting U+I Labs Director of Communications, Jason Harris, in an unenviable spot when I caught up with him for an interview, seeking a convenient encapsulation about the scope and mission of this new Chicago institution … here’s what he had to say:

While not as “fancy” as their neighbor, the Wrigley Global Innovation Center, the U+I Labs boast a massive 94,000 square feet of space, which I take it includes a lot of room to grow (the DMDII footprint is currently only 24,000 square feet), as they add groups to their “portfolio”. As yesterday was the first official day of being open over at Goose Island, there were few specifics in terms of projects or products being discussed, but the potential of the place was immediately apparent when walking in the door (once you found the door – they’re still working out some kinks in the address, which currently appears on a mailbox on a small side entrance to another part of the massive building – with their actual front door being around the north end, at the parking lot). It is certainly a jewel in Chicago’s crown for being a hub for sustainability and innovation … and one hopes it becomes a significant part of the city’s growth.

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