The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of U.S. manufacturing — and shown how digital technology can pave the way for its revival.
A few local demonstrations:
- mHUB, a Chicago product startup incubator, teamed with 700 Illinois businesses to produce critical medical supplies as part of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s essential equipment task force. The accomplishments included designing and building hospital ventilators that cost just $350, made from off-the-shelf parts.
- Azul 3D, a startup founded by three Northwestern University researchers, used its high-speed 3D printer to make face shield parts. It developed a prototype in 24 hours and produced enough components in 48 hours to make 1,000 shields per printer per day.
- Fusion OEM, a Burr Ridge systems integrator specializing in robots that operate alongside humans to perform repetitive tasks, is working with two medical equipment manufacturers and a food-processing company to install more robots to meet pandemic-related spikes in demand.
Several lessons can be drawn from this:
- There’s likely to be strong bipartisan interest in “re-shoring” U.S. manufacturing to make the nation less dependent on overseas suppliers. For example, Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan calls for a $300 billion federal investment in manufacturing R&D.
- Future manufacturing plants will bear little resemblance to old-school factories, where workers on assembly lines perform monotonous tasks. They’ll use robots and other technology to automate “the dull, dirty or dangerous jobs that nobody wants,” says Fusion OEM CEO Craig Zoberis.
- Re-shoring is an opportunity for Chicago and the Midwest to reclaim some of the manufacturing mojo on which the region’s economy was built.
There’s no guarantee re-shoring will happen or that it will be in the Midwest. Globalization isn’t going away. Manufacturing is certain to become increasingly digital, but other countries or other parts of the United States could reap most of the benefit and, in some respects, are well ahead of us.
We won’t see a return of the days when all you needed to get a good-paying factory job was a strong back. The jobs won’t necessarily require a college degree, but workers will need smarts, training and the ability to adapt.
Chicago itself isn’t likely to see a major resurgence of manufacturing jobs. Costs, land availability and other factors will continue to drive most industrial employment to the suburbs.
But the city has an indispensable role to play. If Midwestern manufacturing is to revive, it will need a tech innovation hub that attracts top global talent and provides a startup ecosystem that gives entrepreneurs the wherewithal to generate ideas, build teams, raise capital and get ventures running without massive upfront investment.
Chicago is the obvious candidate.
Judging from what’s worked elsewhere, a productive tech ecosystem would require several elements. One is a cluster of entrepreneurially minded research institutions to foster ideas and technologies that will translate into new products, businesses and jobs.
Chicago has at least one such entity — Northwestern.
“Northwestern, in my 30 years here, has developed into a world-class research institution,” says chemistry professor Chad Mirkin, a nanotechnology leader and founding director of the university’s International Institute for Nanotechnology. “It’s been an unbelievable transformation in a short period of time.”
Much of this is due to the IIN. Established in 2000, it has spawned 22 companies, attracted $1 billion in investment and commercialized more than 2,000 products. Mirkin has started eight companies and has more than 1,200 patents or patent applications.
His latest venture, Azul 3D, co-founded with fellow NU researchers James Hedrick and David Walker, has developed a breakthrough approach to 3D printing. First-generation 3D printers build objects by depositing one layer of material at a time — a slow process best suited to prototyping. Azul builds on subsequent advances to enable printing of a production-grade, human-sized object in a few hours — 2,000 times faster than first-generation printers and 15 times faster than the company’s closest competitor.
That’s a game-changing leap.
“When you can print large things or many small things fast, that’s a viable route to manufacturing,” Mirkin says.
It hastens the arrival of true digital fabrication, with which it will be possible to go from concept to computer file to finished product with a minimum of steps.
That could lead to a remaking of the industrial landscape, lowering costs and other barriers to entry and enabling a startup culture for manufactured goods comparable to the one for digital services.
Another organization hoping to help cultivate a manufacturing innovation ecosystem is mHUB, the incubator launched in 2017 by World Business Chicago and partners. Located in a former Motorola facility on Chicago Avenue, mHUB provides 273 companies with low-cost office space, access to advanced manufacturing technology and support services such as assistance in creating business plans.
It also offers member companies — which collectively include 600 entrepreneurs — an opportunity to collaborate on multidisciplinary side projects.
One example is the $350 ventilator. Another is a commercial toaster commissioned by Marmon Holdings that uses artificial intelligence to brown bread perfectly — in 10 seconds.
For the latter, “In three months, we were able to develop eight prototypes that went out for field testing for a total cost of $60,000,” says mHUB co-founder and CEO Haven Allen. “That’s unheard of.”
Other players include MxD, an innovation center on Goose Island that grew out of UI Labs, and the Chicago Connectory, a Merchandise Mart-based partnership of enterprises involved in the Internet of Things, in which devices communicate digitally without human intervention.
Not all “hard tech” opportunities involve manufacturing. Jerry Quandt, executive director of the Illinois Autonomous Vehicles Association, a Connectory partner, thinks Chicago can play a role in developing digital communications infrastructure for transportation technologies such as self-driving vehicles.
Mirkin says a key challenge will be attracting a critical mass of entrepreneurial rainmakers capable of developing promising ideas into successful businesses. “We’re moving in the right direction,” he says.
Allen agrees. “There’s an opportunity for Chicago to be the epicenter of the fourth industrial revolution,” he says, marrying digital to physical technology.
In just five years, Allen says, “Chicago has laid solid groundwork.”