Yesterday, I had the privilege to be at the White House as President Obama announced the Digital Lab for Manufacturing (the Digital Lab), a new partnership in the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI). Led by the University of Illinois, the Digital Lab includes the University of Iowa, as well as Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa, as part of a national network of 40 industry partners, and 30+ academia, government, and community partners, and an additional 500+ supporting companies and organizations. The Digital Lab was awarded $70M from the U.S. Department of Defense and will be supported by an additional $250M in matching funds from industry and academia.
The focus of the NNMI and the Digital Lab is increasing the competitiveness of the U.S. manufacturing industry via industry-academic-government partnerships. This coalition will exploit advanced digital design and 3-D visualization, computational modeling and resilient design and manufacturing process optimization to maximize efficiency and minimize design and manufacturing costs.
To say that U.S manufacturing has been under great stress would be the understatement of the decade. Manufacturing plants have shuttered, middle class jobs have been lost, and communities have suffered. We cannot roll back the clock to the halcyon days of the past, but neither must we accept the inevitability of manufacturing declines and globalization. There is a way forward, one based on digital manufacturing technologies and industry-academic partnerships that can create new high-paying manufacturing jobs for Iowa and American workers. As I have written in other contexts, engaged public-private partnerships, where research universities and the private sector work in close partnership to address real-world problems via business and technology partnerships, are the keys to competitive success in the 21st century global knowledge economy.
Manufacturing, both large and small, is an anchor of the Iowa economy. In fact, Iowa ranks very near the top of U.S. states in manufacturing. That is not a surprise to those of us in Iowa, but it may be a revelation to others. From Rockwell-Collins (high technology) through Lennox (furnaces and air conditioners) and Pella (windows and doors) to farm equipment (Kinze and Deere), manufacturing is one of Iowa's strengths – now and in the future.
It is essential we help these and other Iowa companies, large and small, remain successful and completive in a global economy. The Digital Lab, and Iowa's partnership with it, will give Iowa companies even greater access to engineering, information technologies, and computer-aided-design (CAD) expertise as part of regional and national collaborations.
In particular, Professor Karim Abdel-Malek, director of the Center for Computer Aided Design, is the Digital Labs project director for the Iowa team. He and his colleagues in the College of Engineering will bring their expertise in modeling and simulation of humans and of electromechanical systems, data visualization and virtual reality, and materials processing to the Digital Lab partnership. Examples of that expertise include:
- Virtual testing via simulation to understand equipment failure modes due to vibration and wear, enabling design for resilience, reducing repair costs and down time
- Software tools and simulations to minimize the number of design iterations and prototypes before manufacturing, reducing costs
- Additive manufacturing (3-D printing) of prototypes and parts, allowing efficient, low-cost, custom design of small volume parts
- Digital manufacturing for Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) of defense systems and extension to partner manufacturing companies
- Human-device interaction (human factors) for design and manufacturing
- Education and training opportunities for Iowa students and workers at all levels in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields
Why I'm Excited
I am excited about the Digital Lab for many reasons. The most important is the opportunity it affords for the University of Iowa and Iowa companies to participate in one of the country's leading initiatives in manufacturing. Working together, we can strengthen Iowa businesses, create exciting and well-paying new manufacturing jobs, and attract and retain talent across the state.
The second is more personal. Many of my old friends and former colleagues from the University of Illinois lead the Digital Lab. As one of its former directors, I was also delighted that the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) will play a leading role in applying advanced computing to manufacturing. This reflects both the capabilities of the center, host to one of the world's fastest computers, and its long history of industrial partnerships.
This is a great opportunity – for all of us.