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Illinois Manufacturing Heritage Embraces the Digital Age

The Illinois advanced manufacturing sector is driven by a well-trained workforce, superior logistics and infrastructure, and a long legacy of technology innovation.

By Cary Estes on May 26, 2015

Illinois / Jeff Adkins

Building passenger rail cars is more like building houses than building vehicles. That’s why Nippon Sharyo relies on a skilled Illinois workforce that can turn raw material and parts into passenger cars that are part of America’s rail renaissance. Nippon Sharyo CEO Kevin Koyasu says building rail cars involves laying a foundation, building walls and installing doors, windows and plumbing, just like a house. In spring 2014 Nippon Sharyo opened a new $100 million facility, its third in Rochelle, that enabled the company to fabricate U.S.-made stainless steel into rail car bodies.

“We have a competitive advantage now that we can do everything in-house from scratch,” Koyasu says. Nippon Sharyo is just one of the companies drawn by superior logistics, infrastructure and a legacy of innovation that make Illinois a leader in technology-driven manufacturing.

Hub for Innovation

Manufacturing comprises 10 percent of the state’s total workforce, employing more than 576,000 workers, and accounting for 13 percent of its Gross Domestic Product. The state has the third-largest manufacturing output in the nation, and leads production in plastics and rubber, machinery, and printing and related support equipment, along with petroleum and coal, fabricated metal, and electrical equipment, appliances and components. From advanced materials and metals to machinery and electronic equipment, the state’s manufacturing sector is highly diverse and highly advanced. Illinois is home to one of four U.S. manufacturing innovation hubs, the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII) in Chicago, a $320 million institute supported by a consortium of the state’s leading manufacturers and higher education institutions. Heading the consortium is UI Labs, an R&D group led by the University of Illinois. DMDII funds projects devoted to digital manufacturing, the practice of collecting data in a design and manufacturing process and sharing it at every step so products can be produced more competitively, says Jacob Goodwin, director of membership engagement and communications for DMDII. The institute’s calls for projects have led to new relationships among entrepreneurs, government agencies and academic institutions that have decided to partner rather than compete for project funding.

“We provide a forum for lots of very smart people to come together and work on proposals, and if they win they’ll work on the research together,” Goodwin says. In Rock Island, the Quad Cities Manufacturing Lab, sponsored by Western Illinois University, teams up with the Quad City Chamber of Commerce to help companies develop advanced materials and manufacturing techniques and then transfer the technology, says Eric J. Faierson, interim director of the QCML. The lab focuses on laser additive manufacturing, such as 3D metal printing and laser cladding.

“Companies should contact QCML when they are ready to learn whether their business can benefit from the use of advanced materials and manufacturing technology,” Faierson says.

Gearing Up for Growth

Manufacturing across the state is driven by robust regional clusters made up of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and suppliers that support them, from an evolving advanced metals and materials cluster in the Rock Island area to aerospace and aviation in the Rockford area to an expanding transportation and machinery cluster around Peoria. In Marion, Aisin Electronics Illinois LLC invested $32.8 million to expand its operations, creating 80 new full-time jobs. The 108,005-square-foot expansion is located adjacent to the current 57,600-square-foot facility in Marion, where 236 people work. Aisin’s investment will mean a 34 percent increase in its workforce. The expanded operation will be part of Aisin’s worldwide auto components manufacturing business. Aisin has two other companies in Marion. Aisin Manufacturing Illinois produces sunroofs, power slide door modules and automotive components, and Aisin Light Metals produces bumper reinforcements and other auto parts.

“There is no question that much of our success is based on the community support we receive and the strong workforce provided by our local partners like Marion and Williamson County,” says John D. Koenig, sales and marketing president of Aisin World Corporation of America. Read more about advanced manufacturing in Illinois.

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