Increasing our region’s competitiveness through traded industries

Businesses thrive when geographic proximity and concentration enable them to make connections across related industries. An industry cluster is a group of firms and related stakeholders that benefit from operating near each other — with deeper labor pools, better access to customers and suppliers, knowledge spillover, and more. For example, California’s Silicon Valley — home to an industry cluster of tech firms, manufacturers, and engineers — is a leader in technological innovation. 

What are traded clusters?

Spotlight on traded clusters

Traded clusters sell goods and services in markets outside the region. That differs from local clusters, which operate and serve the local market. Traded clusters have great potential to grow our economy because they connect our region globally. 


Northeastern Illinois is the freight hub of North America. When our region’s freight system works effectively, it supports local and national economic growth by connecting traded clusters to new markets. When the system performs poorly, however, economic effects are felt both locally and nationwide. Recurring challenges like congestion and unresolved conflicts between railroads and highways can undermine any advantages. Infrastructural and operational improvements to the freight system can reduce traded clusters’ overall shipping costs, while addressing local concerns over congestion, safety, and quality of life.

Metals and machinery manufacturing

High-tech manufacturing — from solar panels to jet engines — depends on small, metal components that must meet the strictest precision, quality-control, and design specifications. Our region is one of the few major U.S. metropolitan areas with a supply network of specialized metal clusters. Metal machining, engraving, and shipping firms may choose to locate here to capture new business with established manufacturers for precision screws and fasteners.


Biopharmaceutical firms — our region’s most specialized traded cluster — have more than twice as many employees in northeastern Illinois as the national average, many of whom work in Lake County. 

Business services

Business services are our region’s largest traded cluster. This cluster supports other aspects of a business, like corporate headquarters or support for unrelated companies through consulting, legal, computer, engineering,  architectural, or other services.

Industry clusters technical report

A CMAP report details how traded industry clusters propel northeastern Illinois’ economies. The snapshots explore nearly three dozen traded clusters, including information about how the clusters compare to the Midwest, the United States, and the world:

Freight and manufacturing industry clusters

CMAP developed a series of studies to understand industry clusters’ characteristics and performance in metropolitan Chicago. The studies assess the strength of the region’s manufacturing and freight clusters, focusing on strategies to support their innovation, workforce, and infrastructure:

CMAP examined the powerful freight-manufacturing nexus, which offers the region distinct competitive advantages to transform manufacturing inputs into final products:

A sub-regional analysis of communities near O’Hare International Airport outlines how local conditions and initiatives support the competitiveness of key industry clusters. Continued industrial success often depends on local collaboration in workforce development, stormwater management, redevelopment planning, and improved truck freight routing and infrastructure:

Supply chains

As one of the nation’s centers for global commerce, northeastern Illinois is a hub for the movement of goods on a local, national, and international scale. However, when the system performs poorly or is disrupted, the economic consequences are felt both locally and nationwide. Understanding and improving our region’s connections to the nation and world is critical to our long-term economic success.

CMAP’s Chicago region supply chain report assesses the flow of goods into and out of the region and explores factors that drive logistics decisions in the region’s manufacturing clusters. The metals supply chain report examines the key characteristics and relationships among industries and offers several recommendations for building on the cluster’s historic strengths.