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Premier Midwest research lab taps Rockford and Northern Illinois University to advance digital manuf

ROCKFORD — A premier Midwest research lab will partner with small- and medium-sized manufacturers in the Rockford area to foster digital innovation aimed at reinventing U.S. manufacturing.
A partnership among Rockford companies, Northern Illinois University’s EIGERlab and the Chicago-based Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute was announced at a 10 a.m. news conference today at NIU-Rockford, 8500 E. State St.
Sen. Dick Durbin, Rep. Cheri Bustos and NIU President Doug Baker discussed how the EIGERlabresearch center will help Rockford area manufacturers further the efforts of the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute.
The high-tech lab opened in 2014 on Goose Island in the Chicago River with $70 million in federal funding and $250 million in commitments from stalwarts of U.S. manufacturing, including Caterpillar, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Electric, John Deere and Procter & Gamble. The lab encourages factories across America to deploy digital manufacturing and design technologies, so those factories can become more efficient and cost-competitive.
“What we’re doing today is about tomorrow’s jobs,” said Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat.
“People who come to (Rockford) for the first time quickly realize what a dynamic environment we have here for aerospace and manufacturing and innovation,” he said. “And as great as the city of Chicago is and as proud as I am to represent Chicago, we have to move this conversation about manufacturing innovation beyond Chicago to downstate Illinois, to communities that are not normally part of this conversation. Rockford was the first community that came to mind.”
Rockford is a natural fit to serve as a key spoke of the Chicago lab’s high-tech innovation. There are nearly 700 manufacturers in the Rockford area, which has a rich industrial history. Today, Rockford’s gravitational pull encompasses aerospace, hydraulics and advanced manufacturing activity. In an effort to grow engineering talent locally, Rock Valley College and NIU announced a partnership this year that will allow Rock Valley students to earn an NIU engineering degree at the Rockford community college without having to travel to DeKalb.
In addition to the digital-manufacturing lab in Chicago, the federal government also has set up manufacturing innovation hubs during the past four years in Youngstown, Ohio, to advance 3-D printing; in the Detroit region to develop lightweight materials and technology; and at North Carolina State University in Centennial to engineer smaller, faster and more efficient power electronics. Additional specialty labs are planned.
NIU’s Office for Regional Engagement, led by Vice President Rena Cotsones, helped build the pilot partnership involving the university, the Chicago lab and regional manufacturers. The effort is also an outgrowth of the strategy for the Illinois Manufacturing Lab, a partnership between the University of Illinois and UI LABS, to deliver advanced manufacturing solutions to Illinois companies while providing a collaborative platform to revitalize regional economies.
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