The Center for Industrial Research and Service (CIRAS) at Iowa State University is developing a new laboratory in which Iowa companies will be able to experiment with new manufacturing technology and identify how particular equipment might benefit their production processes.

The new lab, to be known as the ISU Digital Manufacturing Lab Powered by Alliant Energy, will focus on assisting companies that are struggling to make the right choices in an ever-changing technological landscape, as well as those that are feeling stuck due to workforce shortages, said Mike O’Donnell, director of the CIRAS Manufacturing Extension Partnership Program.

With the lab, CIRAS will be “an unbiased source to help them identify the right technology for them at the right time,” he said.

The Iowa Economic Development Authority contributed $250,000 to purchase equipment and to remodel part of a building in the ISU Research Park. The remainder of the equipment costs, in addition to some rent, will be paid by a $100,000 contribution from Alliant Energy, which is the largest such donation in support of a CIRAS project in the organization’s 56-year history.

Chris Hill, technology program director for CIRAS, answered a few questions about the lab, which is expected to open by late summer.

Q: How did the concept for the digital manufacturing lab come about?

Hill: The concept was a result of several indicators pointing in a similar direction: First of all, many Iowa companies are actively seeking employees and having a difficult time finding them. Companies with those kind of needs only have two choices – they either need to draw new people, or they must find new ways to get the job done without adding employees.

Secondly, CIRAS regularly conducts a needs assessment with Iowa companies to help indicate areas of opportunity and measure the level of success with implementing technology and best practices. In addition, CIRAS regularly conducts events around the state where we talk directly with hundreds of companies to help gauge interest in specific areas. And lastly, many of our partners have been indicating the need for efforts to help address the workforce shortage.  

Looking at all these various sources of information led us to brainstorm various options that CIRAS could lead. We eventually focused on helping companies become more efficient with their existing workforce and identifying technology options that could be used. The Digital Manufacturing Lab is a way to help companies understand how specific technologies might help them address these issues. We want to help companies make change by reducing the risk that comes with technology adoption. We’re giving them the chance to try out the technology and make certain that it does what they need it to do before they spend a bunch of money.

Q: What’s the anticipated demand?

Hill: Demand is strong now, and we expect it to get stronger in the future. We are just starting with the lab construction, but companies already have approached us about taking part. So we have elected to obtain some of the technologies now, and we’ve already begun working with a couple of companies. We expect more people to contact us once we begin to publish stories on how we’re supporting Iowa companies.

Q: How will CIRAS keep the lab current with equipment?

Hill: We have been able to obtain some great equipment [technology] and have several equipment manufacturers who want to partner with us to help support the Digital Manufacturing Lab and make it successful. These partners understand that companies are more likely to make investments in this equipment if they see that the technology can address their issues. This could grow the market for those technologies, which would be good for these partners.

Also, these partners understand that keeping the lab equipment updated helps CIRAS with our lab mission. Lab equipment purchases are made through standard ISU purchasing guidelines utilizing various sources of funds, including company use fees, grants and state funding.

Q: What types of robotics and technologies will companies be able to try out?

Hill: We have a multiple-phase plan, the first phase of which involves cobots [a type of robot], laser scanning, and 3D printers.