Work Continues on New Digital Manufacturing Lab

Iowa manufacturers who are struggling to modernize and grow—either because of uncertain technological needs or because they’re short of the people they need to get work done—will soon have access to a new option.

CIRAS, backed by substantial assistance from Alliant Energy and the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA), will open a new laboratory this summer where Iowa companies will be able to experiment with new manufacturing technology and explore how the machines might impact their particular businesses.

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CIRAS, Alliant Energy, Iowa State University, and Ames officials all meet to tour the future lab site.

Mike O’Donnell, director of the CIRAS Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) program, said the ISU Digital Manufacturing Lab Powered by Alliant Energy will focus on helping two types of companies improve their businesses: those that are struggling to make the right choices in an ever-changing technological landscape and those that feel stuck because a shortage of people is preventing them from growing the way they’d like.

Technologies exist to help both kinds of companies become more efficient and do more work with the same number of people, O’Donnell said. “This is what CIRAS does. We are going to be an unbiased source to help them identify the right technology for them at the right time.”

Debi Durham, director of IEDA, said the new lab “will be invaluable for small-to-midsized manufacturers who may not otherwise have access to this type of technology. The ability to more readily adopt automation technology gives these businesses a competitive advantage as they innovate in a global economy.”

Across Iowa, CIRAS experts see evidence that companies are anxious to embrace the industry’s growing number of new manufacturing technologies. O’Donnell estimates that “dozens to hundreds” of Iowa businesses currently want to upgrade their manufacturing equipment and become more competitive. But they have no idea where to start. The options, including collaborative robots, vision systems, and new data analytics tools, seem to expand every day. But which technology is the correct choice? And how do you avoid wasting capital on an expensive mistake?

Three-dimensional scanning is just one technology that will be available in the new lab.

“All of this new technology is happening at the same time, and companies don’t know where to start because there are so many opportunities,” O’Donnell said. “We’re going to help them figure out what the right steps are for them.”

The new digital manufacturing lab is expected to open late summer with a range of cobots (collaborative robots) and vision systems (smart cameras that monitor a production process and make changes based on what they see).

The lab will be located in the ISU Research Park in a building that is being remodeled to create a flexible factory floor. Companies will be able to bring in their own equipment, integrate new technologies into their production processes, and see which one of the new technologies performs better. (For one example of how cobots can help a company save time and money by automating monotonous work, see the Miracle Tools story.)

The goal is to make Iowans smarter shoppers and make implementation of new technology as risk free as possible.

“The next new idea or machine could hold the key to success that a growing company needs,” said Joel Schmidt, vice president of business development for Alliant Energy. “This lab provides the perfect opportunity to refine a new approach before it is introduced into the workplace.”

IEDA officials contributed $250,000 to purchase equipment and remodel part of a building in the ISU Research Park. The rest of the equipment costs, as well as some rent, will be paid by a contribution of more than $100,000 from Alliant Energy—the largest such donation in support of a CIRAS project since the center was created in 1963.

Terry Kouba, president of Interstate Power and Light Company, Alliant’s energy company in Iowa, described the new partnership with CIRAS as an investment in Iowa’s economy that will benefit all of Alliant Energy’s present and future customers.

“Affordability and success go hand in hand,” Kouba said. “When our industrial and commercial customers are more successful, it gives us greater flexibility to control costs for all our customers.”

 

> For more about the ISU Digital Manufacturing Lab Powered by Alliant Energy, contact Abhay Grover at agrover@iastate.edu or 515-509-1485.

 

A version of this article was published in the Spring 2019 edition of CIRAS News. To read more of that edition or others, please explore elsewhere on our website.