Indiana universities, manufacturers helping launch Digital Lab

Indiana manufacturers, universities and various state groups are abuzz about their involvement with the freshly minted, Chicago-based Digital Lab for Manufacturing—even if they’re not yet sure what their exact role will be.

The initiative, announced Feb. 24 as part of the Obama administration’s National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, is one of what could become a network of more than 40 such centers to be established around the country. Its goal is to increase the efficiency of industrial supply chains by developing (among other things) new digital design, testing and manufacturing tools.

The team responsible for the Digital Lab is led by the University of Illinois, and backed by a consortium of 73 companies, universities, not-for-profits and research institutions—many based in Indiana or with strong Hoosier connections.

The Digital Lab will be financed by about $250 million in industry, academia, government and community financial contributions, plus a $70 million grant from the Department of Defense. The military is particularly interested in the project, because it could help manage its labyrinthine supply chains and complicated product development cycles and servicing needs.

Indiana’s roster of Digital Lab participants includes Rolls-Royce, Indiana University, Purdue University and the University of Notre Dame, along with Conexus Indiana, the state’s advanced manufacturing and logistics initiative.

The inclusion of liberal-arts-intensive IU might seem a bit of a stretch. To no surprise, its contribution is more about software than hardware. Specifically, cyber infrastructure, data architecture development, high-performance cloud computing and cyber security—along with access to the school’s Big Red II supercomputer.

“Manufacturing in general, and digital manufacturing in particular, requires a wide range of expertise—not just engineering expertise, but also informatics and computer science, chemistry and materials sciences, and nanotechnologies,” said Jorge Jose, IU vice president for research.

One of Purdue’s first assignments includes pioneering three-dimensional modeling and “enterprise interoperability standards” for data exchange among U.S. Department of Defense supply chain companies. Plus, creating 3D modeling tools that can be used for training and workforce education.

Notre Dame will participate not just in the Digital Lab, but in another recently minted National Network for Manufacturing Innovation startup, the Lightweight and Modern Metals Manufacturing Innovation Institute in Canton, Mich.

“To be included in two of just three advanced institutes established to date speaks volumes about Notre Dame’s research prowess,” the Rev. John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame president, said in a press release.

As for Conexus’ role, Ryan Metzing, project director, sums it up with a succinct, “We don’t know yet.”

But while he’s short on specifics, he can draw some broad outlines. Outlines that fall firmly in line with the state group’s original brief—manufacturing innovation and education.

“It’s getting Indiana companies involved in the work that’s going on at the Digital Lab,” Metzing said. “Standardizing the way that information is exchanged between big companies and little companies, suppliers and customers, and the way machines talk to each other.

“We think utilizing these technologies is going to require a new type of worker. They’re going to have a different skill set than manufacturing workers today. That’s a lot of the work that Conexus does already, which is filling that skills gap.”

One of the program’s biggest industrial boosters has been Rolls-Royce. The company is so intimately involved that the original announcement of the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation was made at one of its facilities.

Susan Murray, vice president of engineering, said one of the Digital Lab’s most important contributions will be developing design and integration tools for small companies that lack the resources to do it on their own. The new technology would, for instance, allow Rolls-Royce suppliers to communicate more easily with the company, and deliver designs and finished parts faster and with less margin for error.

“I’ve heard some people say that this is the third generation of the Industrial Revolution,” Murray said. “It’s a whole new way of working. Being able to provide support and capability to the small manufacturer.”

Patrick J. Kiely, president of the Indiana Manufacturers Association, said the reaction among his membership has ranged from full immersion on the part of large organizations such as General Electric and Caterpillar to ignorance but curiosity among smaller outfits. He considers Hoosier participation to be vital, given that Indiana is the No. 1 manufacturing state in the country when measured by gross domestic product contribution and number of employees.

“I see few potential drawbacks unless the government dictates the direction,” Kiely said. “We have a lot to gain or lose if we do not continue to develop better and cheaper technologies to design, model, simulate and test new products in days rather than years.”•

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