Built to Last: The Founding Story Behind IMEC

Posted by IMEC on Sep 21, 2021 10:03:35 AM

An innovative opportunity 

Today, IMEC is an industry-recognized leader in the world of manufacturing services, but rewind to just a little under 40 years ago, and IMEC was a big idea in the making. 

IMEC was born at the intersection of innovation and collaboration. In the late 1980s, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) developed “Hollings centers,” a new approach for transferring advanced technologies developed in national labs. In response, manufacturing leaders across Illinois recognized the invaluable edge early participation in NIST programming could provide the state as a national competitor in the world of U.S. manufacturing.  

Bradley joins team 

Under the Illinois Board of Higher Education’s Higher Education Cooperation Act, grants were made available to encourage universities and community colleges to collaborate in providing technology transfer services to Illinois manufacturers. Three Illinois schools (Bradley University, Illinois State University, and Illinois Central College) came together to develop a funding proposal for a Central Illinois-based manufacturing extension center. Forming a partnership based on mutual trust and respect, the universities began implementing concepts and providing resources from the NIST Hollings center program.  At the same time, other regional manufacturing extension centers were being developed to serve companies throughout other parts of Illinois. In 1995, NIST decided to expand the national system of manufacturing extension centers. This expansion in federal funding provided the opportunity to propose and eventually launch IMEC, the Illinois Manufacturing Extension Center. This name would later be changed to the Illinois Manufacturing Excellence Center.

Bradley University was especially excited to participate, given the university’s focus on manufacturing and technology. Being part of IMEC and the national system of manufacturing extension centers provided a way to get integrally involved in the day-to-day application of advanced manufacturing technologies and process improvements and play a unique role in assisting the Illinois manufacturing industry. Bradley sent its own Associate Provost and Dean of the Graduate School, Bob Weinstein, to lead the effort to establish IMEC. Weinstein, who eventually became the first president of IMEC, played a vital role in bringing the IMEC vision to life in Illinois. Working with the universities, community colleges, and business organizations, IMEC was able to build a collaborative team of trusted and respected experts in the manufacturing industry. Weinstein helped develop solid foundation for IMEC. 

Last week, IMEC had the privilege of sitting down with Weinstein to get his thoughts on the beginning, present, and future of this special manufacturing partnership.

"We had the opportunity to draw on extensive expertise," shared Weinstein, "and that became one of the key assets of IMEC…we were able to work with our higher education partners and NIST experts to really understand manufacturers' needs and develop highly effective services to meet those needs.”

Collaboration over competition.

In 1996, IMEC joined with Southern Illinois University, Illinois State University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Western Illinois University, and numerous Illinois community colleges to propose and receive funding from Federal (NIST) and State of Illinois grants. From the beginning, IMEC was forward-thinking, trustworthy, and results-driven, offering vital services to improve the competitiveness and productivity of manufacturing establishments across Illinois outside of the Chicago metropolitan area.  Another NIST center (CMC) was established to serve the Chicago region’s manufacturers. Eventually, NIST decided to discontinue CMC’s funding and awarded IMEC additional funding to provide manufacturing extension services throughout the entire state of Illinois.

With a solid foundation of collaboration over competition, IMEC became a well-oiled machine, nimble and able to evolve to meet the ever-changing needs of manufacturers.   With its focus on excellence, with support from both NIST and State agencies, and with matching funding provided by manufacturers, IMEC was able to persevere. And as a world of opportunities continued to unfold, the organization remained grounded in its foundational and forward-thinking principles: plan, implement, excel. 

A new board.

Given the limitations and potential liabilities involved in working with local universities alone, the early IMEC team decided to establish the company as a not-for-profit corporation. This structure was also a NIST requirement for centers receiving manufacturing extension partnership funding.

Joining forces once again, Weinstein and his teammates came together to form a well-rounded, collaborative, and competent board, complete with representatives from variously sized manufacturing corporations, including Caterpillar, Boeing, and John Deere, as well as many other intermediate and small-sized companies. In total, the board included nearly a dozen companies. While only manufacturers on the board had voting privileges, the board also included non-voting representatives from cooperating universities, community colleges, business organizations, NIST, and state agencies (including the Illinois department of commerce and the Illinois Board of Higher Education).  

The board provided deep representation for manufacturers across Illinois, expanding the presence and efforts of IMEC. Establishing a separate not-for-profit organization also increased an atmosphere of collaboration over competition, as no university had dominant status or a decision-making vote within the organization. The board gave IMEC room to thrive.  

About IMEC today.

After retiring as president of IMEC in 2011, Weinstein returned to Bradley University, where he continued as a professor until 2015. In his place, after a national search, Dr. David Boulay was selected as Weinstein’s successor and continues to serve as the president of IMEC. "I was really pleased to find David," shares Weinstein, "among a number of other candidates, he was clearly the best fit for our organization."

Today, IMEC maintains its solid foundation because of many contributing members, partners, and organizations. Over the years, IMEC has received funding from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs, Illinois Board of Higher Education, as well as the support of many colleges and universities in Illinois, including Illinois Central College, Illinois State University, Illinois Valley Community College, University of Illinois, John Wood Community College, Kankakee Community College, Richland Community College, Western Illinois University, Lakeland Community College, Eastern Illinois University, and Bradley University, among others. 

Overall, Weinstein shares that he is most proud of the people he had the opportunity to work with at IMEC. "No organization is ever successful because of the efforts of an individual," he shares. “Helping pull the IMEC team together was one of my roles. Success requires a collaborative effort of people with lots of different talents. We had that kind of team within [IMEC]. I am proud of all that IMEC has achieved through the efforts of its talented leadership and field staff, and I am grateful for the effective leadership that IMEC’s manufacturing-based Board of Directors has provided over the years.”

What started as an innovative idea amongst a few college campuses and universities has evolved into a game-changing solution for Illinois and the makers of the Prairie State. Throughout every year, IMEC meets a critical need for manufacturers across the state, driving growth and competitiveness through trustworthy, reliable, and sustainable services.

From the early days until now, IMEC continues to prove that Illinois manufacturing is built to last.


Written by IMEC

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