Close this search box.
Close this search box.

The Digital Manufacturing Revolution: What Companies Need to do to Catch Up

How will digitization redefine manufacturing to create the fourth major revolution, following the lean revolution of the 1970s, the outsourcing phenomenon of the 1990s and the automation that took off in the 2000s? Where there are pockets of excellence, the U.S. is behind in key areas. Dr. Dean L. Bartles, chief manufacturing officer at UI LABS in Chicago, and executive director of the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute talks about how companies can better compete in this new era.

Q: What are these key areas that the U.S. is behind in, and why are U.S. manufacturers falling behind?
A: The answer to this question is directly related to the creation of the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII), a signature effort of UI LABS. You may know that DMDII is one of the seven Institutes within the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI). In 2011, a number of esteemed advisors to President Obama in technology and business pointed out the flagging position of the U.S. in manufacturing innovation compared to other nations—a result not just of the outsourcing of low-wage jobs but also a decline in research and development activity and in the demand for high-tech jobs for skilled workers.

The recommendation put forth to the president was to establish the NNMI to support pre-competitive research, development, and demonstration that would benefit all U.S. manufacturers. Within that network, DMDII focuses on digital manufacturing: using digital technologies to transform the way parts, components, and systems are designed and manufactured by using data more efficiently and effectively at every step of the process.

Q: Are there specific CEO leadership skills required for leading a digital transformation?
A: It comes back to a forward-looking perspective and an understanding that leading or even keeping pace with the global manufacturing sector requires an investment in the future. We have had the privilege of working with manufacturers that are true visionaries in their field, and even they realize that the type of transformation we are seeking for the U.S. supply chain requires a coordinated effort among university, industry and government partners.

Q: Mid-market manufacturers don’t have the same resources that larger firms do. How can the digital revolution help them catch up and remain competitive, even leapfrogging their competition?
A: Reaching small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) is a critical part of DMDII’s mandate. We are accomplishing this through multiple avenues. One is the establishment of pilot “DMDII chapters” in Rockford and the Quad Cities, expanding the reach of the institute to these economic hubs and helping to digitize the supply chain through direct outreach to SMEs within these communities. We expect to launch additional chapters to expand our geographic reach. The other avenue is, fittingly, digital in nature: an open-source, online platform called the Digital Manufacturing Commons (DMC). Many of the DMDII projects in progress now will result in tools and applications that will be made available to users of the DMC, leading to the democratization of these resources for manufacturers large and small.

One of the first steps in remaining competitive for a mid-market firm is to plan ahead and make strategic investments in the future of the company. We have over 100 SMEs among our 180+ DMDII members—companies that have taken a first step down this road.

Q: Are there common mistakes or pitfalls that companies should be aware of?
A: One of our greatest challenges is getting management to pay attention to and buy in to digital technologies and understand how to apply these technologies to their businesses. Understandably, the leadership of many smaller companies is focused on the day-to-day operations of the business: namely, filling orders and making payroll. There is a risk in making an investment outside of these core activities, and in trying something novel. Part of what DMDII does is to establish a “safe space” for risk-taking and to take a modest investment and leverage it with the resources of an entire consortium.

Q: Is there a minimum investment needed? And how long will it take for companies to see their ROI?
A: The Illinois Manufacturing Lab (IML), a program run by UI LABS and the University of Illinois, has shown that even modest investments can yield an impressive ROI. A case study completed with a company called Tek Pak took an investment of less than $10,000 to analyze its machining processes with software applications and resulted in immediate efficiency gains valued at $72,000 per year.


  • Get the CEO Briefing

    Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CEOs in every industry
  • upcoming events


    Strategic Planning Workshop

    1:00 - 5:00 pm

    Over 70% of Executives Surveyed Agree: Many Strategic Planning Efforts Lack Systematic Approach Tips for Enhancing Your Strategic Planning Process

    Executives expressed frustration with their current strategic planning process. Issues include:

    1. Lack of systematic approach (70%)
    2. Laundry lists without prioritization (68%)
    3. Decisions based on personalities rather than facts and information (65%)


    Steve Rutan and Denise Harrison have put together an afternoon workshop that will provide the tools you need to address these concerns.  They have worked with hundreds of executives to develop a systematic approach that will enable your team to make better decisions during strategic planning.  Steve and Denise will walk you through exercises for prioritizing your lists and steps that will reset and reinvigorate your process.  This will be a hands-on workshop that will enable you to think about your business as you use the tools that are being presented.  If you are ready for a Strategic Planning tune-up, select this workshop in your registration form.  The additional fee of $695 will be added to your total.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $695 will be added to your total.

    New York, NY: ​​​Chief Executive's Corporate Citizenship Awards 2017

    Women in Leadership Seminar and Peer Discussion

    2:00 - 5:00 pm

    Female leaders face the same issues all leaders do, but they often face additional challenges too. In this peer session, we will facilitate a discussion of best practices and how to overcome common barriers to help women leaders be more effective within and outside their organizations. 

    Limited space available.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $495 will be added to your total.

    Golf Outing

    10:30 - 5:00 pm
    General’s Retreat at Hermitage Golf Course
    Sponsored by UBS

    General’s Retreat, built in 1986 with architect Gary Roger Baird, has been voted the “Best Golf Course in Nashville” and is a “must play” when visiting the Nashville, Tennessee area. With the beautiful setting along the Cumberland River, golfers of all capabilities will thoroughly enjoy the golf, scenery and hospitality.

    The golf outing fee includes transportation to and from the hotel, greens/cart fees, use of practice facilities, and boxed lunch. The bus will leave the hotel at 10:30 am for a noon shotgun start and return to the hotel after the cocktail reception following the completion of the round.

    To sign up, select this option in your registration form. Additional fee of $295 will be added to your total.