Innovations in farming and manufacturing focus of $1.1 million in NSF grants to IU

Two grants to professors in the IU School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering will support research on the revitalization of traditional industries in Indiana and Taiwan

Two Indiana University professors have received $1.1 million from the National Science Foundation to study innovations in agriculture and technology-enabled manufacturing in the U.S. and abroad. Supported by NSF's Cyber-Human Systems Program, the work aims to create recommendations for spurring regional transformation in Indiana and beyond.

A solar sensor demonstrationView print quality image
Shaowen Bardzell observes an agricultural technologist deliver a solar sensor demonstration in Taiwan. Photo by Jeffrey Bardzell, Indiana University

The funds to Shaowen Bardzell and Jeffrey Bardzell, professors in the IU School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering, include $500,000 to explore the impact of computational agriculture and $600,000 to investigate the use of regional experimentation in the revitalization of traditional industries, such as manufacturing. The $600,000 is a portion of a grant totaling $1.2 million in collaboration with the University of Michigan.

Both projects are focused on understanding innovation in two seemingly unrelated but surprisingly similar regions -- Indiana and Taiwan -- both of which struggled with the loss of manufacturing jobs in the past few decades.

"Taiwan has more recently faced many of the same challenges that the U.S. has faced in terms of their manufacturing moving to China," said Jeffrey Bardzell, who notes that many products shifted from "Made in Taiwan" to "Made in China" since the 1980s.

In response to this loss of mass manufacturing, he added Taiwan has made a major shift toward "precision manufacturing," which requires more skilled labor.

"A similar shift has occurred in the U.S.," said Shaowen Bardzell. "Rather than mass producing cheap products for sale outside of the country, Taiwan is focused more on engineering experience and computational skills -- and all of the infrastructure required to make that possible."

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A sign for "Open Hack Farm" near Taipei, Taiwan. The farm, which was created by a software engineer from the city, is a subject of the Bardzells' ethnography research. Photo by Jeffrey Bardzell, Indiana University

The significance of this shift in both countries was a theme in the researchers' last NSF-funded project, a five-year investigation into the economic pathways to professional do-it-yourself/making movement in the Midwest and Taiwan. Makerspaces are collaborative workspaces that provides collective resources, such as 3D printers, laser cutters and other specialized manufacturing equipment, to facilitate experimentation and creativity related to material fabrication.

During this time, the researchers conducted ethnographic fieldwork on how makerspaces, techshops and co-working spaces evolve from an outsider movement into more formal structures within established industries and institutions, such as universities or businesses, as well as specialized economic development zones (also known as "smart cities" or "smart zones"). Specifically, they saw the movement's energy move into the manufacturing and agricultural sectors.

The new grants will let the researchers focus on how this new direction can translate into true regional advantage. The work will occur in part through ethnography, workshops and policy analysis with individuals at the forefront of these IT experiments, as well as underserved and excluded populations most immediately affected by these technological advances.

In Indianapolis, for example, the researchers have worked with a re-entry program partnering with urban farms and a former bioinformatician at Eli Lilly who's opened a farm in the city. In Taiwan, they have worked with an experimental farming collective in an agricultural county. These farmers, including many former urban professionals, experiment with alternative farming techniques and principles in hopes of improve farming's environmental impact.

Songsung Culture and Creative Park, Taipei, TaiwanView print quality image
The government-supported Songsung Culture and Creative Park in Taipei, Taiwan, merges old structures, such as a former cigarette factory, with the modern, including a hotel, bookstore and shopping center featuring locally made goods and food. Photo by Jeffrey Bardzell, Indiana University

Another Indiana participant, who works as a technician at a car manufacturing plant, is responsible for programming the robots that assemble automobiles.

"The term 'blue-collar robotics engineer' might suggest some tension to a lot of people, but it shouldn't," Jeffrey Bardzell said. "It's what's happening, and what needs to happen, in Indiana and elsewhere, and what we need to celebrate and support from top to bottom -- through better education, better technology, and better training and infrastructure."

In addition to education and training, the IU researchers suggest some other general guidelines for effective regional innovation based upon their earlier work on these topics.

Lean into your strengths

Every region wants to be "the next Silicon Valley." But Shaowen and Jeffrey Bardzell said that different regions need to recognize what makes their particular area unique. Indiana, for example, has strength in precision manufacturing due to the automobile industry's long history in the state, as well as a high concentration of colleges with strong technical programs and a recent influx of high-tech companies like Salesforce and InfoSys. The combination is a perfect formula for industries that produce high-tech physical objects, such as "the Internet of Things," or IoT.

"You really want to focus on your homegrown strengths," Jeffrey Bardzell said. "That's the sort of innovation that not even Silicon Valley can replicate because they don't have the same components in place."

Shaowen BardzellView print quality image
Shaowen Bardzell. Image courtesy of Jeffrey Bardzell, Indiana University

Leverage what can't go overseas

Indiana's unique constellation of universities, industries and expertise can't be moved. Nor can its particular crops -- at least not without losing their special flavor.

"In a mobile world, what can go overseas probably will," Shaowen Bardzell said. "So the question is how to leverage what resources and synergies can't be moved."

Foster local innovation

Indiana has pockets of high-tech innovation scattered throughout the state. Jasper, Indiana, for example, is the home of Smithville Fiber, a leading fiber-optics company. Companies such as Google and Facebook have initiatives to bring ultra-high-speed internet to remote or rural regions, yet these efforts are limited.

"If you want to discover what it might mean to bring high-speed fiber optics to rural America, Jasper's in a great place to answer that question," Jeffrey Bardzell said.

Jeffrey BardzellView print quality image
Jeffrey Bardzell. Photo courtesy Jeffrey Bardzell, Indiana University

Looking to the future

Over the next five years, the researchers look forward to further honing their understanding and recommendations on regional innovation through on-the-ground data collection.

"Our ethnographic work has shown there's a real story to be told about innovation in Indiana's traditional farmland and the manufacturing sectors," Shaowen Bardzell said. "Now, we want to build upon that foundation to figure out how communities can take that innovation to the next level."

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