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Illinois’ Workforce Talent Drives Innovative Manufacturing

Manufacturing in Illinois has evolved into an advanced, technology-driven enterprise

By Bill Lewis on July 11, 2016

Illinois / Jeff Adkins

Manufacturers in Illinois employ nearly 574,000 workers and annually produce goods worth nearly $100 billion. The products may sound familiar, including machinery, chemicals, computers and electronics, vehicle parts, rubber and plastic products and fabricated metals, but this isn’t your grandfather’s manufacturing. Or even your father’s. Manufacturing in Illinois has evolved into an advanced, technology-driven enterprise with significant clusters in sectors such as advanced materials, machine and metal parts fabrication, aerospace and pharmaceuticals. Major manufacturers based in Illinois include Boeing, Caterpillar, Deere & Co. and Navistar. In addition, Illinois has several major industry clusters, including aerospace, which employs 17,000 people in the Rockford area alone. Woodward Inc. sees definite competitive advantages in its decision to expand in Loves Park instead of Wisconsin or South Carolina, says Sagar Patel, president Aircraft Turbine Systems at Woodward.

The company’s $250 million expansion in Loves Park includes a new 60,000-square-foot headquarters and a 300,000-square-foot building for its industrial turbomachinery systems. Illinois has a deep pool of engineering talent, and the Rockford region is home to one of the country’s key aerospace clusters. Illinois has a strong manufacturing workforce that embraces continual improvement and the cost of doing business was comparable with other locations. In addition, O’Hare International Airport and Rockford International Airport simplify travel planning, and state and local incentives were appropriate relative to the company’s investment, he says.

“Our recent awards were built on a legacy of performance in the very community in which we choose to make further investments,” Patel says.  “Expansion in the same community will continue our success – our members and innovative culture are the most important for our success. Community support we receive is fantastic as well.”.

Sound Advice

Organizations such as the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Initiative (DMDII) place Illinois firmly in a leadership role in the additive manufacturing revolution, which uses 3D printing technology to allow for rapid prototyping and creation of innovative products. Meanwhile, small and midsize manufacturers are benefiting from the assistance of the Illinois Manufacturing Extension Center (IMEC), which assists them in improving their competitiveness and productivity. Typically, manufacturers will find an IMEC representative within an hour’s drive.

“We strive to be the trusted adviser for a manufacturing firm and provide the ‘learn-do’ engagement model whereby we work with clients to develop short- and long-term strategies for business improvement. Whether in continuous improvement — lean, quality, safety, etc. — workforce development, supply chain optimization, strategic and top-line growth, or sustainability, a manufacturer can count of IMEC to be a leader in manufacturing industry knowledge and solutions,” says Amy Fitzgerald, marketing manager. When Ace Sign Co. in Springfield needed to map a route for a successful national expansion, it turned to IMEC for assistance.

“The IMEC staff was extremely helpful in moving things forward for us. They challenged what we are undertaking internally and gave us direction to progress through improvements. The third-party integration as well as the ability to buffer and provide non-biased opinions has been most beneficial,” says Todd Bringuet, Ace Sign’s continuous improvement manager. Manufacturing has changed in recent years as the pace of global competitiveness and technological innovation has increased, says Fitzgerald. “With the new trends in Big Data and smart manufacturing, companies are looking to technological advances in digital solutions, 3D printing, robotics and automation to enhance production and create better manufacturing efficiencies,” she says.

Managing Change

The 3D printing revolution is led by organizations such as DMDII, based in Chicago and operated by UI Labs. It brings together 73 universities, nonprofits, and research labs to harness data to make manufactured products better, faster, and more cost competitive. Globalization and the entry of low-cost manufacturers from emerging markets have altered the business landscape for U.S. manufacturers. Customer expectations have put a premium on quality, speed, and customization, says Dean Bartles, executive director of DMDII. The state can aid the resurgence of the manufacturing sector by revamping the industry and equipping workers with the skills to join and lead the manufacturing revolution will be essential, says Bartles. DMDII is addressing the need through research and development co-funded by government and industry partners, outreach to thousands of U.S. manufacturers and workforce development and education.

“To survive, Illinois manufacturers must have access to tools and solutions to manage this additional complexity. Technology, computing and the Internet of Things  (the network of physical objects, devices, vehicles, buildings and other items embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and network connectivity) will be crucial to achieving higher performance, greater efficiency and the agility needed to respond to market shifts,” he says.

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