South Metropolitan Higher Education Consortium

South Metropolitan Higher Education Consortium

Three Decades of Higher Education Excellence Through Collaboration

SouthWorks MakerLab Network

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SouthWorks network diagram

SouthWorks Manufacturing & Innovation Center (SMIC) is a regional collaboration intended to improve the Southland's manufacturing capabilities, train a best-in-class workforce, and create opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship in the making of things. We seek to leverage the manufacturing and transportation clusters that already part of the Southland and so important to the nation and to prepare for the infrastructure improvements – Illiana Expressway and South Suburban Airport- that will have transformative impact on the region.

Southland business leaders, higher education institutions, and economic development entities are working together to create SMIC- a network of makerspaces in the Southland region to:

  • Immediately build a strong workforce for our region’s manufacturers,
  • provide services to support local manufacturing,
  • build and enhance the next generation of manufacturing workforce,
  • expand the number of students choosing STEM careers and provide them needed skills,
  • spur a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, and
  • provide a local connection to the critical National Network of Manufacturing Innovation in Chicago, Detroit, and Ohio which directly impact our region’s industry clusters.

SMIC is based on the concept of makerspaces that have been established worldwide. A makerspace is a space (as small as 1200sf) and equipment (most of which could fit on a desktop) to allow students, entrepreneurs, artists, and businesses to design and make physical objects and design electronic products. These spaces are unique because they allow even non-professionals to quickly learn to design and create using a combination of classic and advanced manufacturing tools.

MIT has taken a lead in the movement with its FabLab concept that standardizes capabilities and programming to make the Labs powerful but accessible to even K-12 students. A simple lab could consist of several design stations (desktop PCs with appropriate software), a 3-D scanner, a 3-D printer, a CNC router, a laser cutter, and small hand tools- all of which could easily fit in a 1500sf space. An international network of FabLabs connects and supports each other.

Such advanced manufacturing tools, primarily 3-D printers and computer numeric-controlled tools, are creating new ideas about how manufacturing can be done, and are poised to be vital tools for which our manufacturers and their potential employees must be adept. Meeting space to build community is an important aspect of the spaces. Since the spaces have appeal across many disciplines and interests, they provide the opportunity for various interest and skillsets to interact -spawning creativity and innovation.

We envision SMIC as a hub and spoke network of makerspaces we will call MakerLabs across the Southland. We will be part of the FabLab network, and we feel that given the resources the community colleges already have, we can provide programming beyond the FabLab concept. Each MakerLab “spoke” will provide services unique to its stakeholders as well as programming which will be coordinated throughout the network. Local businesses, higher education, K-12, entrepreneurs and innovators are prime clients of the MakerLabs. We seek to arm our workforce with more than machine knowledge. Innovation, design, and business skills also will be part of the programming. The “hub” of the network will be a centrally located “Manufacturing Center” that will have space and equipment to supplement what is available at the “spokes”, a flexible manufacturing module in which students can run a real manufacturing business, additional services to manufacturers (e.g. high-end prototyping and design), a central location for service providers, space for events around innovation and manufacturing, and shared workspace for entrepreneurs and innovators who have outgrown the MakerLab at the “spoke” locations.

While makerspaces are targeted at manufacturing and STEM, we believe that SMIC will be the mechanism to build a comprehensive innovation and entrepreneurship eco-system for our region. Providing tools, training, and opportunity to create through SMIC will foster innovative and entrepreneurial opportunities, and we will eventually supplement by mentorship and other services to entrepreneurs, improved availability of capital, and tech transfer for our schools.

 Who We Are:

Thirteen of the Southland’s higher education institutions, through their 22-year history of collaboration as members of the South Metropolitan Higher Education Consortium (SMHEC) represent collectively the second largest employer in the region. The five community colleges and eight universities are committed to regional development, particularly supporting the nationally vital, local manufacturing and logistics industry clusters. SMHEC members have manufacturing training experience, assets, and programs; business programs; Small Business Development Centers; and arts and sciences programs that contribute important assets and knowledge to this initiative.

Chicago Green Manufacturing Partnership (CGMP) is a partnership of Chicago Southland Economic Development Council (local economic development entity), OAI (a national non-profit employment support organization), and local community colleges (three SMHEC members (Moraine Valley Community College, Prairie State College and South Suburban College) and Daley College). CGMP sources, trains, and places students for jobs in computerized machine tool operations and programming (CNC machine technology), skills that will earn them credentials through the Manufacturing Skills Standard Council and the National Institute of Metalworking Skills. CGMP has been nominated for the Great Lakes Manufacturing Council’s 2014 Most Innovative Training Program award. CGMP also contributes strong connections to the manufacturers, municipalities and economic development entities in the region.



Our region’s manufacturing and transportation clusters will greatly benefit from the construction of two major infrastructure projects. Both the Illiana Expressway and the South Suburban Airport will provide the opportunity to make our region even more desirable to manufacturers and transportation-oriented development. Past examples and the “aerotropolis” theory of regional development generated by an airport indicate that the highest and best use of our region will be an expanded manufacturing and transportation cluster. We seek to begin preparing a workforce that, combined with our infrastructure, will be a competitive advantage as industry seeks to locate.

Other regions have made initial moves to build an innovation and entrepreneurship eco-system for their region. Chicago proper, in particular, has put a lot of emphasis on the digital and bio eco-systems. The Southland’s primary clusters- manufacturing and transportation/logistics- do not have similar opportunities and resources.

Makerspaces are popping up in various locations and with various sponsors (e.g. local library, museum, higher education programming, membership-based for-profit), but none so far with any coordinated services or programs for our region. Surrounding areas have various makerspace models – Museum of Science & Industry, rev3 (DuPage county), and SpaceLab (a new membership-based digital space in Mokena), but none have the resources and reach that we propose.

Currently, our region, which has one of the nation’s largest manufacturing clusters, does not have ready access to a makerspace and its many benefits. Our manufacturers are not able to find a sufficient number of suitable employees while parts of our region have some of the highest unemployment and lowest household income levels in the country. In addition, many students avoid manufacturing careers or are steered away by parents or advisors because of the outdated perception that manufacturing jobs are strenuous, mindless, repetitive and dirty labor. A MakerLab, which can even be used by middle school students, can demonstrate that building things is clean and enjoyable.

Other makerspaces have reported additional benefits, including: 1) providing K-12 STEM instructors with new ways to bring their subjects to life, 2) encouraging more students to pursue STEM and manufacturing career paths, 3)allowing art and technical students to utilize new technologies, 4)providing a stronger connection between higher education and the nationally important local manufacturing cluster, and 5)providing higher education students with experiential learning opportunities to provide design, prototyping, and small-quantity manufacturing services to the many small manufacturers in our region.

Communities a MakerLab serves:

  • Existing businesses - The MakerLab will provide the ability to rapid prototype and have access to tools and space existing businesses may not possess. In addition, they will be able to test new manufacturing processes the lab’s equipment makes possible. Users may not just be current manufacturers. Electronic component suppliers, for instance, may see the MakerLab as an opportunity to prototype end-products using their components. 
  • Entrepreneurs - Both student and community entrepreneurs will benefit from the tools, space, and community to support their inventions. Other resources (incubator, etc.) to support the business issues of maker entrepreneurs will be provided through the network hub.
  • Higher Education students - Community college technical, engineering, entrepreneurship, and arts students will have the capacity to design and create with new manufacturing tools.  
  • K-12 students - Access to the MakerLab will provide enhanced STEM and arts opportunities, an updated view of manufacturing skills, and enhanced opportunities to practice critical thinking, visualization, and problem-solving skills. Manufacturing career skills classes will be enhanced and may entice some students to pursue manufacturing careers or STEM education. 
  • General Public - Introductory classes for those wishing to make a single item or interested in finding out whether Maker activities are for them. Groups from park districts, arts programs, Scouts, and seniors programs could be interested.
  • Artists/Crafters/Hobbyists: The traditional artisans and crafters likely will come to experiment with the tools and processes of the MakerLab. The lab does not replace their traditional work, but can augment and broaden their palettes.  

Proposed Programming:


Local Spoke Programming- “Spokes” will focus on serving higher-education STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) and manufacturing technology students, exposing K-12 students to STEM and manufacturing skills and encouraging them to pursue such careers, and serving primary needs of innovators and entrepreneurs in the area.

Programming will include:

  • All technology students will take a MakerSpace class to learn how to use the equipment, incorporate design concepts, and apply their creativity.
  • Summer K-12 camps to build robots, drones, electronic devices, electric guitars, 3-D printed items
  • Introductory how-to classes to build a simple 3-D printed item to leave the class with
  • Classes in the various materials (metal, wood, plastic), components (electronics), and tools/techniques.
  • Seminars and other training for K-12 STEAM faculty to help them incorporate the Lab into their curriculum.
  • Students in manufacturing, design, and electronics will participate in multi-disciplinary student projects class to attack issues suggested by and sponsored by local businesses or projects developed by the students (IIT’s iPRO program)
  • Product Design
  • CAD/CAM and 3-D modeling
  • Open lab for students and public
  • Contests to build an item in a particular category
  • Open innovation contests and hackathons
  • Participation in crowd-sourced design challenges
  • Creative thinking seminars
  • Innovation seminars
  • Potential experiential learning opportunities for students
  • Other programming to fit local interests


Hub Programming - The Hub/Manufacturing Center will house higher-end makerspace equipment as well as other tools to provide training as well as prototyping/design services to the region’s businesses. In addition, a broader spectrum of manufacturing equipment and a flexible manufacturing floor will allow students to understand the whole production process, not just one machine’s operations.

An essential function of the Hub is building a connection to the developing National Network of Manufacturing Innovation; in particular, the Chicago Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute, the Detroit Lightweight Materials Institute, and the Ohio Additive Manufacturing Institute. Each of these institutes directly impact the Southland’s prominent clusters, and SMIC will provide the local, smaller manufacturers as well as workforce development programs that are vital initiatives of the National Manufacturing Institutes access to these institutes.

Programming will include:

Business services:

  • Contract high-end prototyping and design (faculty, staff, and/or student groups)
  • “How to Start a Business” seminars
  • Seminars/training for business managers/owners
  • Access to national manufacturing institutes
  • SBIR/STTR and other funding training
  • Innovation Awards( categories such as business, faculty, student)

Educational programming:

  • Training on the additional equipment
  • Potential to create a student-run business based on a product built in the facility.
  • Manufacturing management programs
  • Process design
  • Integrated manufacturing systems training- ERP, quality management dashboards, workflow management systems, etc.
  • Potential to include a transportation management system “trading floor”
  • Hackathons and crowd-sourced innovation contests


  • Shared workspace/incubator for inventors/entrepreneurs
  • Provide space for local manufacturing, training, and economic development service providers (CSEDC, IMEC, micro-lending, SBDC, etc.)
  • Meeting space for manufacturing events, especially connecting with national manufacturing institute programming

SouthWorks MakerLab Network 2016

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   jjc lab             JJC dog prosthetic Screen Shot 2014 05 17 at 6.54.28 PM



Latest News


SMHEC and its higher education institution members have collaborated with Southland business leaders, economic development entities, and municipalities to create SouthWorks MakerLab Network- a network of makerspaces covering the Chicago Southland region.

At SouthWorks MakerLabs, students and the community can access new and  traditional tools of making physical and electronics objects- from 3D printers to welding equipment- and learn new skills through workshops and support from other makers. Several of our community colleges are also making their sophisticated manufacturing and electronics labs available to the maker community.

SouthWorks MakerLab Network objectives:

  • Spur a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship
    • MakerLabs jumpstart an environment of innovation and provide potential creators and innovators ready access to tools and training that had not been accessible in the past.
    • We offer a Maker Entrepreneurship Program for those who want to build a business around their physical product.
    • We are the official Chicago region provider of the Craft Entrepreneurship Program for those who wish to sell their handcrafted goods.
    • Provide tinkerers and artisans with additional tools and outlets for their creativity.
  • Expand the number of students choosing STEAM careers and provide them needed skills
    • Achieve improved learning outcomes through making activities.
    • Through hands-on learning on projects of their own interest, convince more students of their STEAM capabilities and interest them in pursuing such careers.
    • In particular, create access and support for underserved/under-represented populations.
  • Build and enhance the next generation of our region's manufacturing workforce
    • Educate and excite students and parents about the new manufacturing environment and its viability as a rewarding career choice.
    • Provide exposure to new technologies.
    • Provide important skillsets beyond machine operation.
  • Ensure that our entire workforce develops the critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity which making fosters
    • Develop making as an integral prt of the education process, not just for manufacturing and engineering students.
  • Provide services to support local manufacturing
    • Provide access to new technoogies.
    • Provide prototyping services.
    • Provide more industry access to our students and instructors.
  • Provide a local connection to the critical National Network of Manufacturing Innovation in Chicago, Detroit, and Ohio which directly impact our region’s industry clusters.


Ten of SMHEC’s members have pledged to put MakerLabs on their campuses, and our mission is to provide support to others so that our region benefits from and becomes known for its Maker workforce- a workforce with the technical and soft skills that Making develops.

 To date, 6 MakerLabs have opened.


Open to the Public:

SouthWorks MakerLab Prairie State College

SouthWorks MakerLab Park Forest website

                              Park Forest Workshop Meetup

SouthWorks MakerLab South Suburban College

MakerLab at Joliet Junior Collegege

Maker Lab at Kankakee Community College

Students Only:

Illinois Tech IdeaShop

Lewis University MakerLab


Additional Resources:

SouthWorks Brochure

Original SouthWorks concept paper

MakerLab Toolkit

Test SMHEC MakerLab Toolkit Menu


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Daniel Isenberg is Professor of Management Practice, Babson Global, and founding executive director of the Babson Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Project. His most recent HBR article is How to Start an Entrepreneurial Revolution

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