Manufacturing Day at UI LABS Spotlights Issues of Diversity and Inclusion

As digitization transforms American manufacturing, the nature of skilled work is changing and demand for technical talent is on the rise. To foster a skilled workforce, making manufacturing careers accessible and inclusive is more important than ever.

“Manufacturing today is a tech job—it’s all about data,” Caralynn Collens, CEO of UI LABS, told a group of high school students from Prosser Academy last week.

The students were at Chicago-based innovation accelerator UI LABS—home to the Digital Manufacturing & Design Innovation Institute—for Manufacturing Day, an annual nationwide celebration designed to inspire the next generation of manufacturers. To commemorate the occasion, on Oct. 7 UI LABS hosted the students along with a distinguished group of government officials and community leaders for a discussion of how to increase diversity and access to careers in manufacturing.

City of Chicago Treasurer Kurt Summers

City of Chicago Treasurer Kurt Summers

Andre Gudger, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense; Ted Dean, Assistant Secretary for Industry and Analysis at the Department of Commerce; and Kurt Summers, Treasurer for the City of Chicago provided opening remarks for the program, titled “Under-served On-ramp to the Manufacturing and Maker Economy.”

“Success going forward is about innovation and new ideas,” Summers told the audience. “Expanding the [workforce] pipeline is key.”

The program featured two panel sessions that addressed how to expand inclusion in the workforce and foster business development in the modern manufacturing environment. A recurring theme in the discussion was the importance of showing children that manufacturing is a viable career path for everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity.

“The way they become empowered is they see adults like them,” said Dr. Keenan Grenell, executive director of the Manufacturing Diversity Institute, which co-hosted the program with UI LABS.

An audience member from Chicago Public Schools agreed, adding that we need to “show kids it’s attainable” and make manufacturing “urban, hip-hop cool” to appeal to a younger generation.

Participants identified hurdles, like schools that wait too long to introduce students to manufacturing, and employers whose experience requirements preclude new entrants to the workforce.

Haley Stevens, director of workforce development for UI LABS, echoed the group’s call to engage parents, communities and regional groups to address the issues raised.

“We are truly at a tipping point in terms of organizing resources,” she said.

Content from the discussion will form the basis for two white papers that MDI plans to publish later this year.

Making Manufacturing Cool

Seated in the tiered classroom at UI LABS, the Prosser Academy sophomores learned about how the manufacturing industry is changing—and what that could mean for their own careers.

The students watched a video showing employees assembling a Ford Model T, followed by a clip of a modern automobile factory filled with robots. While human beings are no longer assembling the vehicles, they still have a key role to play, using computer science skills to program the machines, said Aileen Nolan, research associate for UI LABS.

Touring UI LABS’ manufacturing floor, the Prosser students experienced augmented reality firsthand, using the Light Guide system on display to assemble a fuel injector for a jet engine. Lead engineer Kelley Patrick showed the group an Iron Man replica he designed using advanced software and produced on equipment at UI LABS.

Prosser Academy students test out the Light Guide augmented reality work tool

Prosser Academy students test out the Light Guide augmented reality work tool

The students later played the role of engineer—designing and prototyping bean bags to test in a game of Cornhole.

“Who thinks manufacturing is more exciting after today?” asked Michael Fornasiero, a GE engineer and ASME fellow embedded with UI LABS, toward the end of the students’ visit.

Twenty hands shot into the air.