I was interested to see that UI Labs’ new Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute opened earlier this week on Chicago’s Goose Island. Also known as DMDII, the institute is the first in the nation to unite university and industry partners, and enable them to collaborate side-by-side so they may, as UI spokespeople put it, “work to reinvent U.S. manufacturing for the 21st century with the goal of speeding industrial innovation.”


The key is that the institute will be home to university researchers and teams of corporate engineers and software developers working to help embed digital innovations into the U.S. manufacturing infrastructure. UI Labs was awarded $70 million from the government to fund the DMDII, which will leverage $250 million in commitments from leading industry partners including Council members General Electric, John Deere, Procter & Gamble and Lockheed Martin, as well as other academia, government and community partners to form a $320 million institute.


The facility may be looked at as equal parts high-tech industrial research lab, showcase for companies looking to build their digital manufacturing and maker of cutting-edge, specialized industrial products. It features a 24,000-square-foot manufacturing floor filled with the digital manufacturing equipment, including a large 3D printer, as well as work space and conference facilities.


What’s perhaps most critical, is the institute will bring together large corporate partners with small and mid-level manufacturers, including startups, explains UI Labs executive director Caralynn Nowinski. Consequently, the institute will bring the “best and the brightest” together to solve the world’s toughest challenges, she says in a Chicago Tribune article.


Indeed, Nowinski says project teams, which will be funded both by government grants and corporate matching funds, must include representatives from large and small companies, as well as university partners.


“We need to bring all these different institutions together,” Nowinski says in the Tribune article. “That’s what creates powerful partnerships.”


Big and small companies alike realize the need for such an institute, although it mainly strikes a chord with large companies. Jason Harris, UI Labs director of corporate marketing and communications, says big companies in particular are realizing the benefits of collaborating with their competitors to speed innovation and cut costs.


“The lone ranger approach is being replaced by the collaborative approach,” Harris says in a second Chicago Tribune article.


One case in point is Rolls-Royce. Dan Hartman oversees the construction of the manufacturing floor at DMDII, but actually works for DMDII top-tier partner Rolls-Royce in Indianapolis, where he oversees engine manufacturing. By agreement with DMDII, he now spends 40 percent of his time working for Rolls-Royce and the rest working in Chicago. Hartman says the institute in Chicago will help transform American manufacturing and ultimately spur long-term U.S. economic growth and job creation. To do that, the institute must bring in smaller companies because they make up essential links in the industrial supply chain for bigger players, he says.


“One of the biggest impacts we’ll have is the digital integration into the supply chain,” Hartman says. “That will have a huge ROI impact for us.”


What are your thoughts on the institute? Secondly, what do you consider to be the largest potential benefit of having small, mid-size and large companies collaborate along with researchers?