Back to the Future for Manufacturing

Back to the Future for Manufacturing

In late February, President Barack Obama announced the creation of two new Midwestern manufacturing hubs in Detroit and Chicago. The program’s first pilot project launched in Youngstown, Ohio, last year. The Youngstown hub is focused on 3D printing. Obama said the goal is to establish 45 such “regional hubs,” which are based on a German model, over the next 10 years. Germany, it should be noted, has 60 such hubs.

Detroit’s will focus on lightweight and modern metals manufacturing, while Chicago’s charge is to lead innovation in digital manufacturing and design technologies. The federal government will provide $70 million in funding to each, the White House said. Private institutions like state and local governments, universities, and industry are expected to kick in $250 million more to what is formally called the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute.

The Defense Department ran a bidding process in which Chicago competed against several other regions of the country. That private funding is apparently what helped Chicago beat out the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an aerospace hub in Huntsville, Alabama, in the bidding for the national digital manufacturing institute. Only $16 million of the additional $250 million came from the state, with the rest coming from the likes of General Electric, Rolls-Royce, Procter & Gamble, Siemens, Lockheed Martin, Dow Chemical, and others.

Manufacturing in the Midwest—could this “back to the future” strategy pay off?

After Chicago’s post-industrial fall from grace, Mayor Richard M. Daley championed financial markets and tourism as the city’s new lifeblood. Today that paradigm is largely unchanged, economically speaking, but emerging as we are from a catastrophic financial crisis, it may be time to look elsewhere for support.

The U.S. lost one third of its manufacturing jobs during the 2000s alone, Obama said at the announcement, but has gained back some of those jobs since. Still, the U.S. has more than half a million fewer manufacturing jobs than before 2000, despite recent gains. It is true advanced manufacturing may not be as labor-intensive as the industries that built the American Midwest. But its potential to create new technology is greater. If Chicago captures any of the new businesses that result, it could be a boon for the region. Industrial designers and engineers should be as intrigued by the potential of these manufacturing hubs as are the captains of industry who hope to land the next billion-dollar idea.

Chicago’s hub will be located, fittingly, on the North end of Goose Island—an industrial spit of land in the Chicago River, made into an island to facilitate shipping. Advanced materials and digital manufacturing seem a far cry from the steel, ink, and beer companies that formerly populated the near Northside neighborhood. But the economics remain the same. Managed by University of Illinois offshoot UI Labs, the hub could spur businesses that will support the local economy—not to mention the area’s historic character.

The power of digital design is not news to architects. Today’s designers are immersed in tools that enable new forms, more productivity, and global connections that the old masters could not grasp. Should advanced manufacturing surge in the Midwest, could it help local architectural fabricators reach new markets? Would designers have greater access to new technologies?

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the institute’s research mission “the best insurance policy you can buy.” Beyond banking on innovators flocking to or staying in Chicago because of this new hub’s existence here, it does seem there is some value in laying claim to the patents and products that could come from such knowledge-intensive research and development.

I am skeptical anytime a politician promises somewhere will become “the Silicon Valley of” anything, but that doesn’t mean the direction is wrong. Chicago’s position as a transportation nexus and its relatively diversified manufacturing economy are built-in advantages that this hub idea only strengthens. It is a smart move nationally to rebuild U.S. manufacturing competitiveness. If we reinvest in a livable city and region, it is a move that could payoff locally, too.