Pandemic shows the need for an American manufacturing revival that Chicago could lead

Among companies already moving us in that direction: mHUB, a product startup incubator, Azul 3D, with leading 3D printers, and Fusion OEM, with robots that operate alongside humans.
By Ed Zotti
Chicago Sun-Times
7/17/20


The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of U.S. manufacturing — and shown how digital technology can pave the way for its revival.

A few local demonstrations: 
  • mHUB, a Chicago product startup incubator, teamed with 700 Illinois businesses to produce critical medical supplies as part of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s essential equipment task force. The accomplishments included designing and building hospital ventilators that cost just $350, made from off-the-shelf parts. 
  • Azul 3D, a startup founded by three Northwestern University researchers, used its high-speed 3D printer to make face shield parts. It developed a prototype in 24 hours and produced enough components in 48 hours to make 1,000 shields per printer per day. 
  • Fusion OEM, a Burr Ridge systems integrator specializing in robots that operate alongside humans to perform repetitive tasks, is working with two medical equipment manufacturers and a food-processing company to install more robots to meet pandemic-related spikes in demand. 

Several lessons can be drawn from this: 
  • There’s likely to be strong bipartisan interest in “re-shoring” U.S. manufacturing to make the nation less dependent on overseas suppliers. For example, Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan calls for a $300 billion federal investment in manufacturing R&D. 
  • Future manufacturing plants will bear little resemblance to old-school factories, where workers on assembly lines perform monotonous tasks. They’ll use robots and other technology to automate “the dull, dirty or dangerous jobs that nobody wants,” says Fusion OEM CEO Craig Zoberis. 
  • Re-shoring is an opportunity for Chicago and the Midwest to reclaim some of the manufacturing mojo on which the region’s economy was built.

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