The Immense Ambition of Chicago’s Digital Manufacturing Hub

With an infinite number of virtual factories and an open-source manufacturing platform, the implications of the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute go far beyond Chicago.

Sounds neat. So what does it do?   Photo: Michael Tercha / Chicago Tribune

Last week Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel, Dick Durbin, and Pat Quinn all took time out of their schedules to rep Chicago’s forthcoming digital manufacturing lab, the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute. It was a “mega” deal secured by an “Olympic Gold-Winning Bid” that’s a “huge win” for Chicago, which will “incubate Illinois’s revival.” So it sounded pretty neat, except for I didn’t know what it was supposed to do.

Which is a shame, because what it’s supposed to do is interesting, and hugely ambitious.

I touched on the hub concept earlier, and how the digital manufacturing lab is intended to bring together academics, industry, and government to solve manufacturing problems of interest to all three stakeholders. Germany’s Fraunhofer Society is one model, but the idea isn’t alien to the United States—the ARPA-subsidized Stanford Research Institute provided critical developments in the creation of the Internet (and Disneyland) and laid the foundation for Silicon Valley. (The Department of Defense’s role in funding Chicago’s digital hub is historically resonant; the DoD was the “price insensitive lead customer”  and the “greatest venture capitalist of them all” that kept the valley’s semiconductor industry profitable in its early years.)

While the model was crucial to the growth of Silicon Valley—Xerox PARC is another example—it’s still uncommon, and has raised the question of how everyone’s all going to get along. Sharing information and ideas can catalyze innovation, but how will companies protect their competitive advantage, aside from promises to “set aside rivalries”?

That’s where the Digital Manufacturing Commons comes in. The digital manufacturing hub isn’t just meant to be a physical hub. At its heart is the DMC, an open-source software platform that mirrors the physical lab and expands its reach, in theory, to any company that adopts it.

“How do you get all of the data across the life cycle of a product in one place? Today the technology doesn’t exist to do that, or to the extent that it does it’s extremely expensive,” says William King, the Lab’s chief technology officer. “It’s going to be a platform where people can put data on from across the entire product lifecycle. There’s data generated during design, there’s data generated by machines when parts are made, there’s data from assembly, testing, quality control, data from packaging, shipping, logistics, point of sale, and even, in many cases, after something is sold, you continue to take data.

“Today, much of that data is not kept. And for the data that is kept, many times people don’t know what to do with it. The thing that doesn’t exist today is the ability to link all of those pieces of data and put them all in one place.”

The data itself is not open-source, but the platform is—think Android, the open-source OS that many very competitive companies have adopted to both collaborate with some peers and compete against others.

“Many times, companies are not incentivized to share the data that does exist,” says King. “What the Digital Manufacturing Commons gives us is, once everyone’s using a common platform for data collaboration, you can start to set up business transactions around the data.”

That data creates a virtual hub on top of the physical one, a clearinghouse for manufacturing problems and solutions, according to Caralynn Nowinski, UI Labs’s chief operating officer. Companies might be looking for a widget, or a company with the capability of making widgets; or they could be looking for industrial practices from unrelated companies that could speed the process of widget-making, data that’s potentially available within the DMC marketplace.

“Now you have a view of the supply chain that didn’t exist before because it’s not just your supply chain, but it’s potentially thousands of others as well,” Nowinski says. “So you have an opportunity for better sourcing, better pricing, for more selective opportunities to develop collaborations. You have this access that didn’t exist before. You can crowdsource design, digitize a factory in a way that you’re actually seeing how the assembly’s going to look, from the design to the production and assembly, and the distribution and logistics companies that are part of our platform as well. You start seeing that new connections can be made.”

The digital manufacturing lab isn’t just meant to foster the creation of virtual marketplaces; it’s also supposed to be a foundation for virtual factories, in which a virtual part can be built on a virtual assembly line and virtually distributed.

“You’ll go from design to production in a prototype mode, but then you have to scale that up to a factory floor, into an assembly line,” Nowinski says. “Now you have the opportunity to digitally design what the factory is going to look like, and see how that production is going to flow through the factory floor. Now you’re digitizing that manufacturing process as well. Even another step further, you move into assembly and distribution.”

Ameet Sachdev and Ellen Jean Hurst compare it to “an industrial version of ‘SimCity,’” but it’s more like a million monkeys playing SimCity, and closer to what climate scientists and meteorologists do with weather: create a virtual world and then simulate its existence many thousands of times to test the effect of very small variations. That’s why the UIUC’s Blue Waters supercomputer, which went fully online last year, was central to securing the lab—among many other things, it’s used for climate and weather modeling.

The DMC enables a kind of virtual, big-data Taylorism. The “digital” in digital manufacturing isn’t just about 3D printing or robotics, it’s the application of data, and the powerful computer hardware to process it, to the process of manufacturing, not just in a virtual factory but in meatspace as well.

“Digital manufacturing is the application of computer technologies and data technologies to the factory shop floor,” King says. “If I can give you an analogy: today you can wake up in the morning and turn on your cell phone, your smart phone, and get the sports scores and the weather, the news, your email. It’s not widely possible to do the same thing where you would turn on your cell phone and check what your factory did overnight, what are your production workers doing at this moment. That kind of technology where you’d check the smartphone or a tablet and find out what’s happening exists at just a very few companies and research labs.”

The lab will host real, manufactured things, not just concepts in a cloud. “We’re going to be the place where manufacturers can come to demonstrate their new technologies before they bring them on the factory floor,” Nowinski says.

“By having thousands, and eventually millions of people using the Digital Manufacturing Commons, as a common platform, what that lets you do is it lets you reach out to all these people,” says King.

 

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