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New Illinois lab to link companies with research

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — The new public-private digital manufacturing lab planned for Chicago will mean 50 to 70 jobs for the city, a professor involved in the project says, but potentially far-reaching innovation for dozens of companies involved.

The new Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute that President Barack Obama announced Tuesday will be at Goose Island in Chicago, but the list of universities and companies involved in the public-private partnership is long. The 23 universities include the University of Illinois, Northwestern, the University of Chicago and Purdue. The more than 40 larger companies include Caterpillar Inc., Deere & Co., Boeing Co., General Electric Co. and Dow Chemical Co., plus there are dozens more smaller ones participating.

The Goose Island facility will employ those 50 to 70 people, said William King, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Illinois who will be the chief technical officer at the institute.

But the institute will also link together many existing assets, such as the National Supercomputing Center at the University of Illinois in Champaign.

The $320 million institute — $70 million from the U.S. Department of Defense and $250 million from other public and private sources — isn't expected to directly create large numbers of new jobs, according to an FAQ about the project provided by the federal government, but to make manufacturers who work in defense and elsewhere more efficient and competitive.

King says the lab aims to become a link between the research capabilities of big universities and the businesses — including many dozens of small ones — that can put it to use to solve the kinds of problems they share.

One key piece will be gathering and trying to make sense of massive amounts of data generated by any manufacturing process — how long it takes, what's involved in the process, how much a mistake can cost — that now may not be used at all.

He uses the example of an engine maker.

"If I have hundreds of parts that are flowing in from dozens of suppliers — if I get all the data, then I can start to ask all the questions like, 'Which parts should go together in which combinations to make the best engine?'" King said. "You assemble your engine faster (and) you have a higher quality product."

SWD Inc. in the Chicago suburb of Addison is one of the small companies down the supply chain from major manufacturers that hopes to benefit.

SWD employs about 120 people and makes coatings that prevent corrosion of screws and other metal parts. A flaw as seemingly small as too much of one of those coatings ending up in the slots on the head of a screw can shut down an assembly line at an automaker and cost a lot of money, company President Rick Delawder said.

Through the institute, SWD will get access to one of the world's fastest supercomputers, Blue Waters at NCSA at the University of Illinois, to run computer-simulated modeling aimed at reducing defects.

"I could tell you that this would be something that we would have absolutely zero access to (otherwise)," Delawder said. "I don't necessarily see it adding a lot of new jobs per se, but it's driving down the costs."

While direct job creation isn't part of the plan, Gov. Pat Quinn said Tuesday that playing host to the new institute should nonetheless help generate new jobs in the future.

"This first-of-its-kind digital hub will make companies more competitive and stronger by providing them with the most cutting edge tools and technologies," Quinn said in a statement.

The Chicago institute will be based on similar institutes in other countries, such as Germany's Fraunhofer Institute, where companies share and collaborate on research, King said. Another similar institute in Detroit will focus on lightweight materials. Previously announced hubs are focusing on 3-D printing in Youngstown, Ohio, and energy-efficient electronics in Raleigh, N.C. And the president says more are planned.

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Follow David Mercer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/davidmercerap .

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