The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Manufacturing Innovation Institutes: Chicago, A Big Deal; Detroit, Meh

The Wrigley Company’s R&D Building on Goose Island in Chicago.  Source:
Last week, President Obama announced that two consortia in Chicago and Detroit has been awarded with New Manufacturing Innovation Institute awards from the U.S. Department of Defense.  DoD will put forward $140 million toward the projects in each  city, which are backed by another $140 million in private sector money.  The Chicago project involves the creation of a Digital Manufacturing Institute led by a group of 73 companies, nonprofits and local universities, and the Detroit project involves the creation of a Lightweight and Modern Metals Manufacturing Institute led by a group of 60 companies, nonprofits and local universities.  

For the Chicago project, the scope is grand.  From the Chicago Tribune’s report on the announcement’s local press conference:

The new institute, according to Chicago’s proposal, would be located in a leased building on the northern end of Goose Island. Oversight would be managed by UI Labs, a nascent University of Illinois-affiliated effort focused on turning academic research into moneymaking, job-creating products. UI stands for Universities and Industries.

“This is not a think tank,” said Michael Sacks, the mayor’s top outside adviser, who was tasked, along with Deputy Mayor Steve Koch, to run the bid effort. “This is an industry-led partnership between business and academia, which will solve real manufacturing problems and deliver goods to loading docks across America faster and cheaper.”

Meanwhile, the Detroit perspective on the announcement takes a quite different tone.  From the Detroit Free Press’ report on that group’s local press conference:

The Canton-based consortium — called LM3I for short — brings together makers of aluminum, titanium and high-strength steel with universities and labs doing research on new technology.

It includes 60 members led by EWI, an Ohio-based company that specializes in developing technology for mid- to large-sized manufacturers in aerospace, automotive and other industries. Among the members are Wayne State University, Michigan State University, Michigan Tech, the University of Michigan, ALCOA, Boeing, General Electric, Honda North America and Lockheed Martin.

“The long-term goal of the LM3I Institute will be to expand the market for and create new consumers of products and systems that utilize new, lightweight, high-performing metals and alloys by removing technological barriers to their manufacture,” the White House said.

I applaud and congratulate both cities and project participants for winning competitive national awards that look to take the manufacturing legacies of both cities well into the 21st century.  But from my (admitttedly limited) perspective, it looks like Chicago won big, and Detroit fell short.

I’ve not read either proposal, so I can’t say anything with certainty.  However, two things stand out in the reports of the awards.  The Chicago proposal seems poised to position the city as a leader in next-level manufacturing on a national, and possibly global, scale.  Presumably by focusing on digital manufacturing, the Chicago institute will be able to conduct research on the entire spectrum of manufacturing, looking at ways to improve manufacturing technology, processes and efficiencies.  And by locating the institute in Chicago’s Goose Island area, a manufacturing district just northwest of the Loop, the finished institute may be well located to attract the creative and innovative minds that would be crucial to its success.

Contrast that with information about the Detroit proposal.  I’m sure lightweight metals is a very important part of the future of manufacturing, but from someone who knows nothing about lightweight metals, it appears to be a niche research piece compared to Chicago’s broad scale.  Furthermore, the project is to be located in Canton, 30 miles west of Detroit and 10 miles east of Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan.  I imagine that if the Detroit project is successful, it will develop much like the Silicon Valley “suburban nerdistans” that are declining in popularity as we speak.  (Interesting aside: read the Free Press article, and you will find that Canton local officials were “pleasantly surprised” with the announcement.  Meaning, they didn’t know beforehand?  That can’t bode well for the Detroit project).

I’m quite excited about both projects.  But it’s clear one is after lofty goals, and the other hopes to stamp out further loss.

3 Responses to “Manufacturing Innovation Institutes: Chicago, A Big Deal; Detroit, Meh”

  1. Mike Healy

    One bit I thought was interesting regarding the Chicago bid was the sheer breadth of the partnerships. They pulled in entities like the University of Nebraska, University of Colorado, etc. My first thought was that the bid represented a concrete manifestation of Chicago fashioning itself as the 'Leader of the Interior' like you, Renn and others have urged.


  2. Pete Saunders

    Mike, I definitely agree. Chicago put together a broad- based partnership that reflects its desire to be the nation's preeminent interior city. Honestly I don't know if any \”Leader of the Interior\” competitors, like Dallas/Ft. Worth or Houston, put forth any proposals, but it's clear Chicago wanted this.



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