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Universities Join Push for Digital Manufacturing

Industry, academia, government and other partners have come up with dual plans to help the United States become a major player in manufacturing and supply chain operations. The White House has introduced two new research institutes to encourage manufacturing innovation.

The Digital Lab for Manufacturing will research the interoperability and use of technologies, including mobile, cloud and high-performance computing, to develop new capabilities for designing and testing new produces and reducing costs in manufacturing processes. Although this $320 million institute will be based in Chicago, 25 universities in Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Nebraska, New York, Oregon, Texas and Wisconsin will participate in the lab through a network of manufacturing research sites.

An initial grant of $70 million comes from the U.S. Department of Defense. The remaining funds have been committed by the other participants, including the education institutions and 41 industry partners, such as General Electric, Rolls-Royce, Procter & Gamble, Dow, Lockheed Martin, Siemens, Boeing, Deere, Caterpillar and Microsoft.

The effort will be led by UI Labs, a research and commercialization collaborative.

The Lightweight and Modern Metals Manufacturing Innovation (LM3I) Institute will work out of a site in the metro Detroit area and be led by EWI, which develops and applies technology in manufacturing. Also seeded with $70 million from the DoD, EWI will work with nine universities in Colorado, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee, as well as some 50-plus research institutions and companies that have pledged matching funds. The LM3I Institute will focus on expanding the market for new, lightweight, high-performing metals and alloys in multiple segments, including defense, aerospace, automotive, energy and consumer products.

The DoD became involved in establishing both institutes because it's a major customer of manufactured products. As an overview document explained, "The department requires complex, highly integrated systems to gain technological advantage, but it lacks the open market or volume to push costs or cycle times lower." By promoting innovations in design and manufacturing processes, the DoD hopes to speed up development of new products while reducing the expense of their production.

Both initiatives were kicked off by President Obama during a talk he gave earlier this week to announce the new institutes. "Keeping America at the cutting edge of technology and innovation is what is going to ensure a steady stream of good jobs into the 21st century," he said. "And that's why we're here today — to take new action to put America at the forefront of 21st century manufacturing."

Obama noted that most research and development is co-located where the manufacturing takes place. "So if all the manufacturing is somewhere else, the lead we've got in terms of design and research and development, we'll lose that too. That will start locating overseas. And we will have lost what is the single most important thing about American economy, and that is innovation," Obama said. "So that's what all these hubs are about. They're partnerships that bring together companies and universities to develop cutting-edge technology, train workers to use that technology and then make sure that the research is translated into real-world products made by American workers."

During the same speech, Obama also announced a new competition sponsored by the Department of Energy to provide $70 million to launch a new advanced composites manufacturing innovation institute. The research for that center will focus on fiber-reinforced polymer composites. These mixtures combine fiber and plastic to make materials that are lighter and stronger than steel.

In January a new institute for research and developing innovations in next-generation power electronics was launched in Raleigh, NC. Obama has set a goal of creating 15 such manufacturing innovation institutes during his second term.

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