New UCLA-based Manufacturing Institute Puts Academia on Economic Map - Higher Education
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New UCLA-based Manufacturing Institute Puts Academia on Economic Map

by Michael Levitin

Jim Davis is Vice Provost of Information Technology at UCLA and interim executive director of the institute.

Jim Davis is Vice Provost of Information Technology at UCLA and interim executive director of the institute.

President Obama last week awarded $70 million to the University of California, Los Angeles, to launch a Smart Manufacturing Innovation Institute that will spur digitized, energy-efficient, sensor-driven manufacturing in five regional hubs, promising academic institutions a robust new role in the U.S. economic landscape.

Incorporating more than 200 partners across industry, academia and the nonprofit sector, the institute aims to disrupt a dated, inefficient manufacturing sector—currently the source of one-third of America’s energy use—through cutting-edge technology that will lower costs, reduce emissions and unlock a generation of job growth while bringing greater diversity to the field of technology development.

“Like the banking and financial industry, like the transportation industry with Uber, and like the health care industry that changed with mass digitization, we’re talking about the same kind of transformation: digitizing the manufacturing process,” said Jim Davis, Vice Provost of Information Technology at UCLA and interim executive director of the institute.

The goal: to increase manufacturing efficiency by 15 percent and energy productivity by 50 percent. “If you save energy at those kinds of levels, it translates directly into environmental impact and significant gains in the way we consume energy,” he said.

Likewise, the institute, which is receiving an additional $70 million in matching private funds, will “pay a lot of attention to developing a diverse workforce from all levels of college, including community colleges, bringing in [graduates] and getting them ready for data-centered next-generation IT jobs,” Davis added.

“Lots of people work in information technology, but there’s a shortage in diversity, and there’s room to build that up. We’ll focus on manufacturing and opening up jobs in those sectors, [because] when you look at where the plants are located, you really want to tap into the workforce in that particular area.”

A coalition of universities sits at the core of the project—a joint venture between the Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition and the Department of Education—which President Obama introduced June 20 at the third annual SelectUSA Summit in Washington, D.C.

While UCLA is leading the California regional manufacturing hub, Texas A&M will steer the Gulf Coast center; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute will lead the Northeast center, based in New York; Pacific Northwest National Laboratory will lead the Northwest center in Washington state; and NC State will lead the Southeast center in North Carolina.

Dozens of other academic partners and research institutions include Cal State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory at UC Berkeley, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Louisiana State, Montana State, Missouri University of Science and Technology, Purdue, Rutgers, Tulane, SUNY Buffalo and many more.

By accelerating the use of advanced sensors, data analytics and controls in the manufacturing process, the institute aims to impact everything from 3-D printing to semiconductors to fuel efficiency. A bakery, for example, which doesn’t manage its energy effectively, can save by using simple sensors, while a complex business like an oil or gas plant can employ sensors in its large-scale furnaces to save on energy and costs.

Some large corporations have committed to partner with the institute, including Microsoft, Google, Northrup Grumman, General Dynamics, Alcoa, BASF, United States Steel Corporation and General Mills. But the emphasis, said Davis, is on boosting efficiency at small- to medium-sized firms—affecting all manner of manufacturing, from the glass and food industries to oil and metals.

“What if you had the right data, at the right time, in the right form, wherever it’s needed? It opens up huge amounts of productivity and energy savings,” said Davis. Not only that, the institute may open a staggering array of “untapped opportunities” to create new jobs, significantly impacting the American economy. “Not tens and hundreds of thousands of jobs, but many, many more,” he added.

While it elevates the role of higher education institutions—which are no longer only developing technological solutions but also establishing regional centers of economic growth and employment—the institute confirms UCLA as ground zero for information and manufacturing technology applied in real, industrial settings.

“UCLA takes its mission as a public institution very seriously, and we are excited to help bridge research, policy and practice in a way we hope can transform manufacturing [and] have a positive impact on our future,” said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, according to UCLA Newsroom.

Boasting 40,000 small- and medium-sized companies and around 1.3 million manufacturing employees, California is the country’s largest manufacturing base. Now, said Block, “with L.A. as the headquarters of this new institute, our goal is to unite those different elements and help all five regional centers bring innovative solutions to the whole country.”

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