Iowa universities involved in 'huge' federal manufacturing initiative

Aim of project is to bridge gap between research, product manufacturing

The United States plans to stay competitive in a global marketplace through advancements in manufacturing innovation, and Iowa’s three public universities will be involved in those efforts.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday announced the creation of two new “manufacturing innovation institutes” – one in Detroit and one in Chicago – aimed at connecting universities with the private sector in hopes of bridging the gap between research and product manufacturing.

The U.S. Department of Defense will head the institutes, funded through a $140 million federal commitment and additional non-federal dollars from private and public partners – like the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa.

The UI, for example, is contributing $3 million in its role with the Chicago-based institute, which is partnering with 73 companies, nonprofits and universities focused on digital manufacturing and design technologies. All of those dollars will stay in the state to support research and manufacturing here, said Dan Reed, UI vice president for research and economic development.

“We will contribute resources and receive funding to support our projects,” Reed said.

Local companies from the private sector involved in the Chicago consortium include Rockwell Collins, Proctor & Gamble, and Deere and Company, according to White House officials.

The Detroit-area institute includes support from 60 companies, nonprofits and universities focused on lightweight and modern metals manufacturing. Together, the institutes move toward fulfilling the president’s vision of creating a network of up to 45 manufacturing innovation institutes – a plan that has not yet received congressional approval.

The goal is to make each institute the center of a regional hub for researchers, product developers, and federal agencies interested in collaborating on “key technology areas” that will keep the United States competitive globally.

“Manufacturing jobs have moved off shore for many reasons,” Reed said. “This is part of the initiative to bring back our competitive edge. We want to hang onto and create new manufacturing jobs in the U.S.”

Reed said he wanted Iowa to be involved in the project as soon as he learned of it last year. With one of the institutes centered in Chicago, Reed – who previously led the Department of Computer Science at the University of Illinois – said he contacted his former colleagues and pitched the UI’s partnership.

“This is really important because we have gained access to a very exclusive club,” Reed said. “We have gained expertise and funding to support national and Iowa-based initiatives.”

Although details of specific research projects haven’t been ironed out, the Chicago-based digital manufacturing lab will work to cut the time and costs associated with manufacturing across the country. The goal, in part, is to help manufacturing companies big and small – like those that dot the Iowa landscape – become more efficient.

Federally, the labs aim to strengthen the U.S. supply chain and reduce acquisition costs for the Department of Defense.

The Chicago-based lab is getting $70 million of the federal seed money, plus another $250 million from industry, academic, government and community partners – totaling $320 million.

Reed said he expects the Iowa contingent in the consortium to mean more jobs and economic opportunities for the state.

“We want to be more nimble and cost competitive in a globally competitive environment,” Reed said, adding that connecting Iowa research with its small, medium and large manufacturers “is one of the things the university and other partners can do to support the competitiveness of Iowa companies.”

The UI’s partnership with the Chicago lab will involve its Center for Computer Aided Design. The researchers will remain stationed in Iowa, but they will participate in virtual teams commissioned to work on key problems, Reed said.

Karim Abdel-Malek, director of the UI design center, said he’s been with the UI for 20 years and this project is his biggest.

“I think it’s huge,” he said. “This is the first time money has been put aside for a project of this magnitude and collaboration between so many companies and universities.”

He said the United States already is ahead of the curve in digital manufacturing research.

“And we are going to get better,” he said.

Regarding ISU’s involvement, the university expects to have “seats on lab boards and committees,” giving it a voice in the institute’s operations and funding decisions, university officials said Tuesday. It will involve three of its centers – the Center for e-Design, the Virtual Reality Applications Center and the Center for Nondestructive Evaluation.

Janis Terpenny, director of the e-Design center, is expected to provide technical leadership for the Chicago-based lab.

“This is public-private partnership on a grand scale – one capable of providing the significant resources and talents to advance research, effect change for manufacturers large and small, and prepare the next generation for the multi-faceted demands for a new type of workforce," she said.

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