In its first plant tour and roundtable discussion of 2015, members of the Manufacturing Leadership Council gathered recently at Lockheed Martin’s F-35 jet fighter factory in Fort Worth, TX, to see how the $100 million plane is made and to discuss what for many is a revolutionary production approach – digitization.

The event, co-hosted by the ML Council and Michael Packer, Director, Advanced Manufacturing Programs at Lockheed Skunk Works, and a member of the Council’s Board of Governors, enabled Council members to see first-hand how the complex F-35 – which consists of 300,000 parts, has about 12 million lines of “flying” software code, and takes two years to build – moves through the stages of production in the highly automated, 5,305-foot-long factory.  Council members toured the factory in golf cart-like vehicles.

The Lockheed plant tour event, held last month, followed three plant tour and roundtable events last year at Lexmark International in Boulder, CO; Campbell Soup’s Pepperidge Farm plant in Denver, PA; and at American Axle & Manufacturing in Kalamazoo, MI. Additional events in 2015 will be announced shortly.

As a preface to the Council’s roundtable discussion on digitization, Lockheed’s Dr. Don Kinard, a Senior Technical Fellow who works on the F-35’s production system design, explained how F-35 production is based on a “digital thread” that extends from design using 3D models, through digital mock-ups and simulation, and to digital assembly and testing. In the future, he said, this digital thread could encompass additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, techniques.

Like Lockheed, many Council member companies are also interested in digital factory techniques to improve productivity and efficiency. And, like the F-35 program, which was designed to create for the first time a common aircraft platform for all military services, many companies are intent on establishing common production platforms and more standardized production environments. Digitization plays a major part in realizing this vision, in what is, Council members said, both a revolutionary and evolutionary journey.

“It’s people; it’s not the technology,” said one Council member. ”It’s the change management. For us, a lot of our installed assets and products were designed decades ago and still are maybe only halfway through their life. We couldn’t afford to completely reengineer it. You’re going to have to evolve your way to it.”

But will creating digital factories enable companies to realize new competitive advantages, or is digitization simply table stakes in an increasingly fast-moving, technology-intensive industry? Council members were split on this question, with some saying that survival could depend on embracing the new technique and others saying that advantages will accrue to those that can implement digital techniques better than their competitors.

But there was one aspect of the digitization trend that all agreed on: It is necessary to attract and retain the next generation of employees in manufacturing. The challenge comes at a time when a number of factors – retiring “baby boomer” employees, greater automation, and unfavorable public perceptions of manufacturing as a career choice – have converged to make it difficult for companies to find qualified employees.

“If you think about our talent – our children, our grandchildren, the next generation of talent – they are coming up in that digital era,” said a Council member. “If we don’t move, how are we going to attract that talent?”

It begins, a number of Council members said, with changing mindsets about how to innovate, how to produce products, even how to learn. One Council member told the story of how his company is trying to restructure by hiring a group of young people to champion change by showing how products can be built quickly using digital techniques.

“To make that mind-shift change through our company, we had to go out and hire a bunch of young folks who understood and have open minds and aren’t boxed in with the old way of thinking,” he said.

The mindset change also involves how the younger generation wants to operate. Said another Council member, “I think it comes down to not just how they learn but how the younger generation wants to operate. It’s less confined by organizational boundaries and more around collaboration, more around how you can have multiple conversations and multiple projects going on in multiple places at the same time. And how do you allow for more independent, empowered decision-making?”

Council members also debated how to approach the digitization opportunity and not get overwhelmed by what can be the all-encompassing nature of digitization. Should manufacturers start small and enable grassroots projects to germinate? Should companies first develop an overall strategy?

Some Council members felt that a hybrid approach may be the best way to realize the benefits of digitization, but most also thought that identifying selected opportunities that can demonstrate a payback – not trying to, as the saying goes, “eat the elephant in one bite” – makes the most sense for the majority of companies.

“You’ve got to find the pockets in your company that give you the greatest value and start from there, but always have the thought of ‘How can I make it all come together?’” said one participant in the roundtable.

Looking ahead 10 years, Council members said they have a variety of aspirations for what digitization can bring. Better customer service and support, greater standardization within the business, reduced product development time, attracting the next-generation workforce, and enabling truly better decisions were cited by a number of members.

As one Council member summed it up: “Digitization is just a means to an end. And the end is efficient execution.”