Chicago digital lab's 1st forum shares goals with smaller firms

Manufacturers learn how center can help them automate, cut costs

By Alejandra Cancino and Anastasia Forina, Tribune reporters

Published: April 24, 2014

In five to 10 years, Mike Hobbs said he envisions his plant operated by robots, the reason he hosted the Digital Lab for Manufacturing's first forum Wednesday for small to midsize companies.

Hobbs, chief executive of Engineered Glass Products, said his South Halsted Street plant uses lots of processes that require manual labor, but in the future, it must be automated to remain competitive. As a result, Hobbs said he wants to learn how the lab can help him achieve his vision. The company employs 180 people at its Bridgeport plant and at its research and development facility in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, where the forum was held.

Other executives who attended wanted to know how the lab could help them with other needs.

Rexam, a beverage can manufacturer that employs 20,000 people worldwide and 300 in Chicago, wants to tap the digital lab's expertise for help in increasing customer quality and satisfaction and reducing costs.

"Many of our processes are digital and automated; we would just look if there are ways to further implement digital processes. It's just our first look at it today," spokesman Greg Brooke said.

Edward Lewis, president of Cotton Goods Manufacturing, a sewing business with 15 employees, said he came to find out whether the lab could assist with "developing contacts with other companies."

Brian Hand, chief financial officer at Skolnik Industries, a maker of industrial packaging, said his company is interested in digital workforce training concepts.

"A lot of laborers will be in the position when they use equipment that requires a higher level of education, so that side is going to be important for us," Hand said.

He also cited "new manufacturing techniques that can allow us to make product faster, at lower costs. I'm very eager to find out how this all works out, because I think it's going to be critically important, not just for Chicago, but for manufacturing in general."

The $320 million lab, announced in February, will be based on Goose Island.

During the forum, lab officials touted what they said will be a data-sharing program they called the "Facebook for manufacturing."

The program would allow companies across the supply chain to share information, such as how many manufacturing plants they operate or details of product designs. The site would have privacy settings so companies could restrict who can see their data or limit how much data would be revealed.

"We call this 'digitize a supply chain,'" said William King, the lab's chief technology officer. King said companies collect data as products are made and after they are sold and used. Such information could be sold with the product or uploaded to a cloud, where it could be analyzed and also sold, King said. Companies would get paid on the data they provide, and the lab would generate revenue from consulting and research services, he said.

The goal, King said, is to make the program free on the lab's site before the end of the year.

The lab aims to team manufacturing experts, software companies and universities to spread cutting-edge technology through supply chains, to design and test new products, and to reduce costs in manufacturing processes across many industries.

The lab will employ 80 to 100 people by the end of its first year. Oversight will be managed by UI Labs, a nascent University of Illinois-affiliated effort focused on turning academic research into moneymaking, job-creating products.

The lab is backed by $70 million in federal money, $10 million from Chicago, $16 million from the state and $224 million from companies. The money will be administered over five years.

The next forum will be at 8 a.m. May 2 at the A. Finkl & Sons facility on the city's Far South Side.
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