WATERLOO — A relic of a bygone manufacturing era has been retooled as a cutting-edge research lab to create the foundry of the future.
The University of Northern Iowa’s Additive Manufacturing Center is doubling in size, adding millions of dollars in new 3D printers and drawing national attention to the Cedar Valley TechWorks campus in downtown Waterloo.
The TechWorks also took on a new tenant, began installing a vital elevator and welcomed a new restaurant in the adjacent Courtyard by Marriott hotel over the past year.
But the highlight, said TechWorks president Wes James, was a decision by the Metal Casting Center to lease the entire first floor of the Tech One building in 2019.
“It’s still our crown jewel at the TechWorks,” James said. “Jerry’s program has been really successful in the past few years and is growing. They doubled their footprint at TechWorks to make room for the new printers.”
Jerry Thiel is director of the Metal Casting Center, which has become a go-to site for industry and the military to learn about adopting 3D printing to their manufacturing processes and for researchers to improve the technology.
“The amount of industry draw we have for the technology that we assist companies with just never slows down, whether that’s on a national, regional or local basis,” Thiel said. “They need our help; they need our assistance.
“Additive manufacturing is being adopted at an ever increasing rate,” he added. “It’s becoming a major part of how we produce parts now.”
It’s importance to the future of U.S. manufacturing has made the center a must stop for every politician touring Iowa with presidential aspirations. And the state has been generous with grants to buy new equipment, including a $1.5 million grant from the Iowa Economic Development Authority last year.
The new equipment has allowed the center to grow from its initial large-format sand printer installed in 2013 to include polymer printers, a mold milling robot and new equipment focused on investment casting.
The center just accepted delivery in January of a $1 million VX1000 printer from VoxelJet Systems that make plastic parts for investment casting, and another sand printer is expected to arrive this spring.
“By the end of the year we are going to be really pushed hard to maximize the space,” Thiel said.
Randy Pilkington, director of UNI’s Business and Community Services program, which includes the Metal Casting Center, said downtown Waterloo is now the “go-to place” in the country for manufacturers wanting to adopt the technology to their supply chain.
“This is cutting-edge stuff that nobody’s doing in the country,” Pilkington said. “This will be the foundry of the future, with full automation.”
The Cedar Valley TechWorks campus was created in two six-story buildings John Deere abandoned when it modernized its Westfield Avenue manufacturing facilities. The campus still includes a John Deere presence and its tractor museum.
Cedar Valley TechWorks has been working since 2010 to fill the Tech One building, which includes the Advanced Manufacturing Center on the first floor, Greater Cedar Valley Alliance offices on floor two and the Cedar Valley Makers Makespace and private businesses on the third floor.
James said the TechWorks is still seeking tenants to fill out the third floor and occupy the three upper floors, which are about 25,000 square feet per floor. Several out lots on the campus are also available for stand-alone buildings.
The TechWorks got a boost last September when Productive Resources, a firm based in Springfield, Ill., that does design services work for John Deere, leased 6,000 square feet on the third floor.
The TechWorks is also putting a new elevator in the Tech One building to replace the giant, hard-to-use freight elevator accessing the upper floors. “This really became a bottleneck for our growth,” James said.
The Black Hawk County Gaming Association provided a grant to help fund the elevator project while Schumacher Elevator Co. provided a great deal to complete the work, James said.
Another element of the TechWorks campus, a Courtyard by Marriott hotel, opened in December 2017 but saw a restaurant, The Blue Iguana, and bar, Iron Horse Social Club, open in early 2019. A John Deere training center, planned for half the second floor, is slated to open later this year.
Developer Rodney Blackwell, based in Davenport, started the project in 2012.
“It took us six years and $42 million and was one of the hardest projects I’ve ever done,” Blackwell said. “It was a very distressed building. There was a reason there was no one in line behind us.”
But Blackwell praised the support he received from city, county and state officials who stepped up to help make it happen.
“I’ve never met a team of people that were just about making the community better, putting in all of the effort and really not getting anything for themselves,” he said.