UI Labs opens digital manufacturing center on Goose Island

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UI Labs, the center for digital manufacturing on Goose Island, could bring jobs back to America from offshore because its projects will enable companies to produce goods more efficiently, officials said Monday as the center officially opened.

It’s also a necessary step in establishing an innovation-industrial base, said Adele Ratcliff, director of manufacturing technology at the U.S. Department of Defense.

A key goal of the UI Labs is to extend digital manufacturing to small and large companies, and to ensure it is clean, modern and data driven, said Dean Bartles, executive director of the UI Labs’ research lab, the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute. He joked with Mayor Rahm Emanuel at the opening press conference that “we’re going to rename Goose Island to Innovation Island.”

Emanuel cited the UI Labs for being a necessary element of cutting-edge research, and part of “what a 21st century economy looks like.”

The research, development and supercomputing center, along with its first two programs focusing on solving manufacturing and urban infrastructure issues, occupies 94,000 square feet in the former Republic Windows & Doors building, 1333 N. Hickory.

UI Labs will let tech startups, manufacturers, university researchers and big corporations solve problems in energy, transportation, advanced manufacturing, food production and health care technology.

UI Labs was first envisioned in 2011 at the University of Illinois, but came into its own as a bigger, cooperative initiative Feb. 25, 2014, when President Obama announced UI Labs’ $70 million grant from the Defense Department to create the center.

Scott E. Miller, president of Chicago-based industrial engineering firm The Innovation Machine, said in a separate interview that more productive manufacturing systems can allow each product coming off of an assembly line to be customized specifically for each buyer.

He cited as an example a company that would have made 1 million copies of a product overseas, which, with the kind of innovation going on in Chicago, could move back to America and customize its product to individual buyers. Though some work would be done by robots, Miller, a member of UI Labs’ executive board, noted employees are still needed to design and maintain the robots.

Gov. Bruce Rauner credited himself and “a few other” venture capitalists and entrepreneurs with coming up with the idea that grew into UI Labs six years ago. Rauner also gave credit to Mayor Rahm Emanuel for embracing the idea.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said the UI Labs is needed to boost America’s spending on research and development, which he said has declined to half of what it was 50 years ago as a percentage of the gross domestic product.

UI Labs has hired women in two top leadership roles: Caralynn Nowinski is UI Labs executive director and chief operating officer, and Katie Tillery-Merk is a project manager at the digital manufacturing lab who oversees engineering projects.

Dean Bartles is executive director of the Digital Manufacturing & Design Innovation Institute. | Christian K. Lee/ For Sun-Times Media

Gov. Bruce Rauner, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and others cut the ribbon Monday on the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute on Goose Island. | Christian K. Lee/ For Sun-Times Media

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