Iowa manufacturing and technology companies have a brand-new “sandbox” for trying out the latest in digital technology tools, thanks to a public-private partnership between Alliant Energy and the Center for Industrial Research and Service. 

On Thursday, officials from Iowa State University, Alliant and Ames gathered to dedicate the new digital laboratory facility at the ISU Research Park in Ames. The ISU Digital Manufacturing Lab Powered by Alliant Energy will educate Iowa companies about technologies such as collaborative robots and advanced vision systems, and help them explore ways that automation might improve their companies.

“Really our goal is to incubate engagement with the university to solve problems for advanced manufacturers across the state,” said Nick Peterson, community outreach manager with Alliant Energy, who will be working with businesses using the lab. 

The new facility is located in Building 7 of the ISU Research Park campus, 2500 North Loop Drive, adjacent to Provisions Lot F restaurant. Among the tools at the lab are a state-of-the-art Omron TM Series collaborative robot and various 3D printing platforms. The high-ceilinged, concrete-floored lab space is large enough for a company to set up a small-scale mockup of a production area.  

“Digitalization is projected to improve factory efficiency by 25%,” Iowa Economic Development Authority Director Debi Durham said to a group of stakeholders gathered beneath a white tent in front of the new lab. “We haven’t seen productivity improvements like that in generations. … We know that automation is here, we understand the potential, and we know that our small to medium sized manufacturers are going to be the difference-makers" in leveraging it.

Joel Schmidt, vice president of business development for Alliant Energy, said a primary advantage the lab will provide to companies is confidence that they are choosing the right technologies for their needs. 

“Imagine if you could test-run a production line, try out some really promising new technology on a small scale,” Schmidt said. “Not only would you have something that works, you also cut down on the time that it would take to get that solution in place and actually start earning on that idea. Your workers would now have better job security and probably pick up some new skills and training as they learn to operate this new technology.” 

Alliant Energy provided a cash contribution of $100,000 to the project, the largest private gift to CIRAS in the center’s 55-year history. Alliant has also agreed to pay ISU Research Park the lease cost for the lab space for three years, in an agreement that can be extended beyond the initial three years, said Mike Wagner, an Alliant spokesman. The Iowa Economic Development Authority has contributed $250,000 in state funding to the project to help pay for the equipment.  

Working with Peterson at the lab is Abhay Grover with CIRAS, who will be the full-time lab manager. About 40 companies are already scheduled to use the space; an initial group of 25 people from a company were scheduled to visit on Thursday following the dedication ceremony. 

Peterson said that companies will be charged fees for using the lab, but that the cost would be far below what they would otherwise pay in the private sector for similar services. 

Alliant Energy is giving priority to its energy clients in using the lab, but it’s open to all businesses. Companies interested in working on a project can contact their key account manager or the Business Resource Center at 1-866-ALLIANT (866-255-4268).