Univ. of Illinois central to new, $320-million Digital Lab for Manufacturing


"Digital Manufacturing Commons” will reduce costs for manufacturing, transform the way work is done, and spur economic growth.

Representatives from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign were with President Obama on February 25, 2014, as he announced a new Chicago-based public-private partnership called the Digital Lab for Manufacturing.

The Digital Lab for Manufacturing is an applied research institute that will develop digital manufacturing technologies and commercialize these technologies with key industries. These technologies will be used to make everything from consumer products to heavy machinery to equipment for the military.

It will launch with $70 million from the U.S. Department of Defense. More than $250 million in additional funding will come from industry, academic, government, and community partners.

The Top 5 College of Engineering at Illinois and its world-renowned National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) are central to the Digital Lab for Manufacturing. William King, an Abel Bliss Professor in Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering at Illinois, is the Digital Lab’s principal investigator and will serve as its Chief Technical Officer.

“The challenges for manufacturing are virtually unchanged since the Industrial Revolution,” said King. “How do you make a high-quality product and get it to your customer quickly? How do you most efficiently use materials and energy?”

Today’s computing and data technologies, however, mean that companies generate huge amounts of data about the design, fabrication, assembly, quality, shipping, delivery, and use of their products. But that data is not aggregated. In fact, it’s often thrown away.

The Digital Lab for Manufacturing will develop data integration technologies for the manufacturing industry. Companies will use the resulting “Digital Manufacturing Commons” to collect all of the data generated in a product’s life cycle, analyze that data, and unlock its value. Developed by GE, this software will be made open-source through the Digital Lab for all its partners.

“Think of it as Facebook for manufacturing—a digital platform that will link innovators, factories, and computing,” said King.

Sensors will provide data on every aspect of the product. New tools will be created to model, prototype, and manufacture products. Machines on the factory floor will talk to each other. Entire factories will talk to each other.

All of that data, all of those digital conversations, will be internet-based. Illinois’ computer scientists and engineers will help make the conversation possible, and the Illinois’ cybersecurity experts will help keep it safe. The Digital Manufacturing Commons will also link companies to supercomputing resources at NCSA and the experts who can make the most of them.

“American industry has tremendous needs for 21st century computing and data environments. It asks us to do things that can only be done with very advanced digital solutions and teams that integrate expertise from supercomputing to multi-physics software environments. NCSA can help create those solutions and get to work,” said Prof. Edward Seidel, NCSA’s director. NCSA has worked closely with private-sector partners since it was established in 1986.

Ultimately, the challenges are complex, but the mission is simple. The Digital Lab for Manufacturing will reduce costs for manufacturing, transform the way work is done, and spur economic growth.

“Digital manufacturing requires world-changing, research-driven innovation—the sort of innovation that has always been at the heart of pre-eminence at Illinois. NCSA and the College of Engineering will drive a new era of national manufacturing prominence,” said Chancellor Phyllis Wise.

“Some might find that mandate intimidating; we find it exhilarating. We’re proud to take on such a leading role.”

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s role in the successful Digital Lab for Manufacturing proposal was widespread. In addition to King serving as CTO of the lab, Placid Ferreira and Rob Pennington will also serve in key technical leadership positions in the Digital Lab. Ferreira is head of the Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering, and Pennington is Chief Technology Officer at NCSA. NCSA’s Merle Giles, meanwhile, will be involved in the Digital Lab’s business development efforts.

Several Illinois faculty members were also critical to developing and writing the proposal: