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L.A.-based hub will help create factory sensors

June 20, 2016

Los Angeles will become the headquarters for a federally funded institute devoted to developing sensors that make manufacturing more efficient.

President Obama announced the project, which will receive $140 million in public and private funding, Monday at the SelectUSA summit in Washington, D.C.

A consortium of researchers in Los Angeles will coordinate the work of five regional centers — one at UCLA and outposts in Texas, New York, Washington and North Carolina. Dozens of companies across the country will participate and invest in the initiative, including Google, Microsoft and Northrop Grumman.

The initiative will get $70 million from the Department of Energy and $70 million from private companies and state entities.

One of the hub’s goals is to develop advanced sensors that monitor the use of energy in manufacturing and make the software available on an open-source platform so that the code used to create the sensors is broadly available.

“We are entering a sensor world,” said Lynn Orr, the undersecretary for science and energy. He said it has become much cheaper even for households to use “smart” tech to regulate their consumption of electricity, heat and water.

“What we are trying to do here is to apply and use those techniques more effectively to make manufacturing more efficient, more productive,” Orr said.

Manufacturers use about a third of the energy consumed in the country, he said.  Sensors can help commercial manufacturers do things like transfer the energy used to heat a piece of equipment into cooling it down or figure out exactly what part of their process is sucking up the most energy.  

This is the ninth center for manufacturing research created by the Obama administration, which has said the government will establish 45 hubs over the next 10 years, focused on designing robots to work assembly lines, repairing cell tissue and recycling more efficiently. The centers will receive $800 million in money from private companies, participating states and different branches of government, including the Defense Department and the Department of Energy.

UCLA said new jobs will be created to work on the institute and that Vice Provost of Information Technology Jim Davis will be its interim CEO. 

“Smart manufacturing is about the transformational use of information technology to open up significant untapped opportunities in manufacturing, from improving efficiency to reducing energy use,” Davis said in an emailed statement.

Hubs in the Knoxville and Detroit areas are working on creating lighter-weight parts. One in Chicago is developing digital design processes, and another in Youngstown, Ohio, is researching how to best deploy 3-D printing in manufacturing. 

Over the last 30 years, U.S. manufacturers have cut an average of 350,000 blue-collar jobs a year, UC Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti said.

“The manufacturing sector employs fewer and fewer blue-collar workers. It employs more and more workers with college degrees,” he said.

His research shows that establishing a hub of technology companies has a bigger effect on those companies and creates more indirect jobs than traditional manufacturing does.

“I have nothing against free money, but if you are in the business of subsidizing companies … then I am not sure that traditional manufacturing is the industry where you should put money,” Moretti said.

Natalie.Kitroeff@latimes.com

Follow me @NatalieKitro on Twitter

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UPDATES:

5 p.m.: This article has been updated to include additional information.

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