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Winds of digital change: How Chicago manufacturers are evolving and embracing new technologies

Feb. 18, 2020
Enter Chicago to foster a robust innovation culture in digital manufacturing in the United States.

Looking through the glass wall into the 22,000 square foot manufacturing floor at MxD in Chicago, one of 14 federal manufacturing research and development institutes in the United States, the uninitiated may be mystified by the gleaming space with testing stations of machines old and new, digital screens, and other equipment with functions and benefits yet to be defined.

Many manufacturers may be as perplexed regarding potential digital opportunities for product innovation in their business.

Deloitte Global surveyed more than 2,000 C-suite manufacturing leaders across 19 countries to gauge their Industry 4.0 readiness. The results published in early 2019 showed that leaders “remain challenged to translate the possible opportunities into effective business strategies” citing “too many technology choices” and “difficulty keeping pace with rapid rate of change and understanding all the new technology driven opportunities.” Less than one in five agreed “their organizations use data-driven insights.”

“You can tell me I should go the digital path. What does that actually mean?” Chandra Brown, CEO of MxD, asks rhetorically. “What should I invest in first? How much? What is the ROI?”

Brown, back in her hometown after years in executive positions in manufacturing businesses and at the U.S. Department of Commerce, declares: “We still have the best academic institutions in the world, the best companies in high tech and manufacturing. With innovation and entrepreneurship, the U.S. still leads.”

Brown, a self-described southside Chicago straight shooter, continues: “In order to stay ahead in the 4th revolution, we have to double down in these areas. If the U.S. is going to compete in the global marketplace, we have to get this right. We can help U.S. companies move farther along the digital thread.”

Enter Chicago to foster a robust innovation culture in digital manufacturing in the United States. In 2014, visionary civic leaders decided to use the city and region’s great assets – a strong industry base, transportation, and logistics – creating two game-changing organizations that are located in a legacy area of Chicago’s manufacturing industry.

As Carl Sandburg wrote: “Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning / Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities!”


The City of Chicago with the State of Illinois provided dollars to MxD (manufacturing × digital) to build nearly 100,000 square feet of space for their offices, event space, and the factory floor with the DoD providing the $80 million in seed funding. They now have 300 partner members from about 15 larger corporations, 30 universities coast-to-coast, small manufacturers, and start-ups as well as small manufacturing and economic development organizations.

MxD is the only institute focused on digital manufacturing and cybersecurity within the national network (called Manufacturing USA). They are now positioned to prepare a cybersecurity workforce with Chicago area high schools and city colleges, and in the last few years have awarded more than $90 million to more than 60 research and development projects across 35 states.

MxD also has projects much closer to implementation. For example, Dow, Microsoft, and ITAMCO, and two universities are on a team to build a supply chain risk alert system that will warn manufacturers of delays caused by emergencies, weather, or natural disasters.


City leaders also supported the creation of mHUB, an innovation center for physical product development and manufacturing in the former Motorola Mobility’s prototyping center. They launched in 2016 with 30 members scaling up to the current 600 utilizing co-working space, offices and labs.

Walking through the 63,000 square foot mHUB floor is like moving through the manufacturing continuum and categories at warp speed. There are numerous rooms where members have 24/7 access to fabrication labs, including electronics, plastic fabrication, metals, textiles, and rapid prototyping, as well as a micro-factory for small production runs. mHUB also offers an educational curriculum that covers areas across the spectrum of design, delivery and growth.

MxD Project Calls

MxD Project Calls are issued to address research, development, and demonstration needs in digital design and manufacturing technology that are aligned with the technical objectives of MxD and directly support the Institute’s vision of developing digital manufacturing systems that make every part better than the last. To support this mission, projects also address topics in workforce development and cybersecurity through the MxD Learn and MxD Cyber programs.

The two most recent project calls were issued on the MxD website in late 2019, both with February deadlines:

Cybersecurity Toolkit Pilot Program, for developing and/or curating low-cost solutions that better secure the supply chain and which are easy to deploy and maintain by small and medium manufacturers.

Human Workflow Digital Twin, for developing real-time systems for accurately measuring, modeling, scheduling and optimizing human interactions with manufacturing systems.

Go to https://mxdusa.org/projects to keep track of future project opportunities.

“The day mHUB opened wasn’t the day manufacturing was going to change but if you look at hype curves, the innovation is now in digital engineering and embedding software and hardware in physical products,” says Manas Mehandru, COO of mHUB, who played a key role in creating the organization.

“Our members define the products, the market segments, and the resources they need,” continues Mehandru. “Generally, entrepreneurs are very talented and have great ideas. The disconnect is in the application,” he says. “A pivot can make all the difference. In the manufacturing world, domain knowledge is very helpful. Surrounding yourself with people in a particular domain, you may realize a much more commercial product or opportunity for a product with simply a different application.”

In the Deloitte survey, one-third of the leaders said, “organizational or geographical silos were among their top three challenges in setting Industry 4.0 strategy.” One respondent, Carlsberg Group chairman, Flemming Besenbacher, asserted that “the challenges that we all face today are too big to handle in isolation. Mutual learning and collaboration is the way forward.”

Forging successful partnerships

There is a well-defined path, more like an upward trajectory, at MxD and mHUB, with product innovation in digital manufacturing through collaboration and public private partnerships. This meets head-on the problem of commercialization costs being an obstacle to product innovation.

Within mHUB, for example, startups to larger organizations such as Underwriter Laboratories and Accenture come together to solve problems together as colleagues or contractors. mHUB links local manufacturers, university researchers, and the city’s entrepreneurial community of makers, technologists, and investors. In making these connections, mHUB ensures that the Midwest region’s manufacturing industry continues to grow.

“We don’t get involved in what the exchange may be,” explains Mehandru. “We’ll see 7 or 8 people who are not working for the same business gathered in a lounge here, throwing out ideas, challenging each other. A lot happens at networking events. They meet and talk with manufacturers, other people in the manufacturing world. There may learn of opportunities to pivot a bit.”

Alyssa Sullivan, MxD’s director of external relations, agrees that partnerships form as “people collide on the manufacturing floor, at events. People get to know each other. They may not have a presence in Chicago and here may be their only opportunity to interact with each other. Someone from process manufacturing may talk with someone from discrete manufacturing about a problem and a light bulb goes off.”

There are a number of benefits MxD and mHUB offer to companies large and small. Let’s say, a start-up has a new technology to test and disseminate in a manufacturing environment. At MxD, they can be involved in an R&D project that would take place in someone’s factory or a lab, or they could embed their technology on MxD’s manufacturing floor. Of course, this interaction allows a possible match: a technology created by a startup, one a global company needs. Also, MxD has 12,000 visitors per year, some of whom may have interest in a technology.

MxD has agreements that allow partner members to contract throughout the network. These projects can be partially funded by DoD or independently. The technology providers such as AT&T, AutoDesk, and Siemens, are interested in the testing space on the manufacturing floor. AT&T, for example, is now testing 5G applications in manufacturing.

mHUB’s $5 million worth of prototyping equipment addresses the challenge of the first prototype and scaling up 100 to 200 to discover any issues. A team of prototyping experts works with members one-one-one to develop these prototypes. mHUB has also started an accelerator program where they will engage three to five large manufacturers who bring problem statements from their industries. The goal will be to commercialize IIoT devices to meet the defined needs.

“We will source ten top IIoT startups from the around the country to come here and potentially adapt a concept to find solutions,” describes Mehandru. “Not only will they solve a problem, they can build in a customer, partner, or investor.”

Clipping through the manufacturing floor at MxD with Tony Del Sesto, vice president for projects and engineering, the test beds come alive, and the digital becomes tangible as do the bottom-line benefits. Breakthrough ideas can be new products or small changes to older production machinery that shave dollars off manufacturing costs.

“I know the vibration and current of a CNC machine, the ambient temperature of a washer system. So what? The data is not helping me,” emphasized Del Sesto. “I gather, analyze information, draw conclusions, and communicate back to my control systems to make improvements…We use the same concept with digital except that now we’re doing it in real time. That sets up a new set of use cases.”

“Here a washer system has a digital sensor at the bottom. When it’s empty I can shut down to fill it and I lose productivity,” Del Sesto passionately explains, “However, my analytics say, based on all the data, this tank will empty 80 hours from now. Knowing that, you can change the water when it doesn’t interfere with your production schedule.”

With older equipment, some dating back to World War II, there are inexpensive digital retrofits. On MxD’s floor is a $150 webcam with an analog pressure gauge. In real time, software translates the data from the gauge via the webcam into digital output. This output can be transmitted over IoT or used however needed. This becomes even more significant when you retrofit a $500,000 piece of equipment that is covered with analog devices.

About the Author: Deanna Nord

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