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Chart the Right Course for your Business in the Era of Manufacturing 4.0

The National Association of Manufacturers’ Manufacturing Leadership Council is the world’s first member-driven, global business leadership network dedicated to senior executives in the manufacturing industry. The Manufacturing Leadership Council’s mission is to help senior executives define and shape a better future for themselves, their organizations, and the industry at large by focusing on the intersection of critical business and technology issues that will drive growth today and in the future. The Council offers an extensive portfolio of leadership networking, research, thought leadership content, and professional development products, programs, and services — including the Manufacturing Leadership Community Website, an online global business network with over 7,000 members around the world.

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Critical Issues 2020/2021

Guiding Theme: The Journey to Manufacturing 4.0

The growing importance of data entrepreneurship and digital acumen in manufacturing leadership, the need for a three-dimensional approach to M4.0 transformation, a heightened emphasis on new digital skills and employee training, and the increasing value of digital twins and virtualization are among the key highlights of the Manufacturing Leadership Council’s Critical Issues agenda for 2020/2021.

Overall Theme: The Journey to Manufacturing 4.0

The manufacturing industry is at a pivotal point in its history. Driven by competitive pressures to become more agile, innovative, and cost effective, and enabled by advanced digital and analytical technologies, manufacturing companies of all sizes are now pursuing a future vision for their businesses that will transform the rules of competition, how work will be performed, how companies will be organized, and how leadership must lead.

We term this future state: Manufacturing 4.0.

The vision for Manufacturing 4.0 is a state in which production and supply networks are increasingly data-driven, predictive, sustainable, secure, and rapidly reconfigurable to meet changing market demands and competition. Products can be smart, easily customized, autonomous, and provide a rich platform for new service revenue streams. Supply chains are responsive, risk-resilient, traceable, socially responsible, and constantly analyzed in real-time to support faster and more accurate decisions. Enterprises are cross-functional, collaborative, inclusive, and highly integrated, often supported by a digital thread that stretches from design, to deployment, to materials reclamation. And leaders and employees at all levels are digitally-savvy, customer-centric, continually innovative, highly engaged, and ready to adapt to new challenges and grasp new business opportunities.

Underpinning these fundamental changes is the growing importance of data as a critical asset in an M4.0 world – harnessing insights to drive better and more effective decisions. Access to new data-derived insights also provides the foundation for a new era of data entrepreneurship, allowing manufacturing companies and leaders to imagine, develop, and deliver new processes, services, and potentially disruptive business models for the future.

Such a comprehensive and enterprise-wide Manufacturing 4.0 transformation requires a three-dimensional approach in which companies need to identify and master the challenges and opportunities of advanced new technologies and data assets, organizational restructuring and cultural improvement, and new workforce and leadership skills and strategies.

The Manufacturing Leadership Council's Critical Issues Agenda, therefore, is specifically designed to help manufacturers align their thinking and practices for a successful journey to Manufacturing 4.0.


The six Critical Issues for 2021, and their key areas of focus, are the following:

COVID-19: Road to Recovery

Widespread disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic continues to have a transformative impact on manufacturing worldwide. Over the last year, manufacturing leaders have reassessed many existing activities from employee safety, to production flexibility, to supply chain resiliency. In many cases, they have also had to rethink their own leadership approaches and the effectiveness of their traditional corporate cultures. With COVID vaccination programs underway, manufacturers are now focusing on business recovery and seeking ways to harness M4.0 technologies and new workforce, management, and partnership approaches to identify new growth opportunities and create safer, more collaborative, adaptable, and resilient internal operations and external value chains for the future.

Areas of Focus

  • Operations & Supply: Manufacturing facility and workspace design to improve all working environments, including hygiene, air quality, distance, people flows, and individual protection; flexible, adaptable, automated production lines and processes that strengthen preparedness and respond faster to sudden impacts ; focus on supply chain resiliency to reduce complexity and shorten response times through localized supply networks, strategic inventory, reshoring, and proximity production closer to demand.
  • Workforce & Culture: Creating more adaptive, proactive, and transparent cultures, leadership approaches, and working procedures with flexible operational talent management strategies to cope more effectively with disruption. Continuing to educate and train employees on best practices and new productivity metrics in increasingly data-driven, remote, and virtual working environments as they evolve into more permanent ‘work from here’ or ‘work from anywhere’ cultures, where that’s found to be feasible.
  • Virtual Environments: Ensuring the organization has effective, easily accessible, collaborative, and secure virtual working, design and production, remote operations, conferencing, ecommerce, and product showcasing platforms in place to support employee, supply, partner, and customer engagement in the new normal.
Factories of the Future

Manufacturers of all sizes, in both process and discrete manufacturing, need to understand and embrace the potential of new and evolving production models, materials, and technologies including advanced analytical tools along the journey towards Manufacturing 4.0. These help increase business value by enabling more cost efficient, responsive, quality-driven, secure, safer, and more sustainable factories, production processes, and new business models for the future.

Areas of Focus

  • M4.0 roadmaps, maturity models, and transformation frameworks to help companies move along their journey to Manufacturing 4.0, from current production models, often based on legacy systems, to a future state of increasingly digitally-enabled production readiness.
  • End-to-end digitization and analysis of manufacturing and engineering processes and functions in both centralized and distributed production networks. This also covers integration upstream with the tiered supply chain, and integration downstream through channels-to-market to connect with end customers.
  • Deployment of M4.0 visualization, digital twin, simulation, and advanced modeling techniques to help digitize, accelerate, and streamline a more materials-efficient manufacturing design and production process.
  • Increasingly more effective cybersecurity risk management approaches to combat the exponentially expanding issue of cyber threat in today’s increasingly networked manufacturing environment. A key focus is effective collaboration with corporate IT teams to ensure successful preventative measures and cyber attack response strategies that minimize potential vulnerabilities – from direct production interruption, to data / IP theft, and ransomware.
Establishing M4.0 Cultures: Collaborative, Innovative, Integrated, and Connected

To maximize and harness the potential of Manufacturing 4.0, manufacturers of all sizes need to actively transform traditional operational cultures by empowering people to help drive growth and strengthen competitiveness. This is achieved by improving collaboration to deliver operational efficiencies, innovating more effectively to develop new products and services, and integrating and connecting functions to maximize the value of shared data and drive greater organizational agility and speed.

Areas of Focus

  • Cross-functional processes, change management approaches, collaborative structures, and more integrated organizational designs that leverage multiple sources of data and expertise to drive both continuous and disruptive innovation, make faster and better decisions, reduce time to market, and enhance competitive agility.

  • Collaborative innovation cultures, behaviors, and platforms that leverage the ideas and development resources of employees, suppliers, external partners, customers, academia, and 'the crowd' to create new products, improve business processes, and create innovative new business models.

  • Best practice approaches, and the challenges involved, in deploying integrated Manufacturing 4.0 technologies and platforms, such as digital threads, that enhance collaboration, integration, and innovation to help manufacturers deliver new ideas and improvements faster across the enterprise.

Transformative Technologies in Manufacturing

In order to create innovative new business models and drive competitiveness, manufacturers must learn how to identify, assess, and scale the most promising M4.0-enabling technologies in order to achieve greater speed, agility, efficiency, and quality to improve customer experiences.

Areas of Focus

  • The impact of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and cognitive analytics on the future of manufacturing.

  • The latest developments in key transformational technologies including the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), additive manufacturing, virtualization and simulation, collaborative robotics, augmented and virtual realities, 5G networks, blockchain, and other emerging technologies.

  • Best practice business case approaches for evaluating, selecting, and deploying new value-generating M4.0 technologies to enhance business capability, while embracing standards and architectures that support open, interoperable digital ecosystems.

Next-Generation Manufacturing Leadership and the Changing Workforce

Leaders in the M4.0 era must develop the digital acumen needed to understand the business-changing impact of new technologies, how to lead a collaborative enterprise empowered by information, and to prepare for the workforce of the future. This will require them to identify the new digital skill-sets their companies will need for their M4.0 journey, while continuing to attract, develop, train, retain, and inspire both the current workforce and the next generation of employees. It also requires M4.0 leaders themselves to embrace new behaviors and value systems and be comfortable with new corporate structures and collaborative cultures.

Areas of Focus

  • Effective leadership role models, behaviors, and mindsets that best support the company’s journey to Manufacturing 4.0 and help define a successful set of competencies for tomorrow’s manufacturing leaders.

  • Employee training, transition, development, and engagement strategies for a diverse and inclusive multi-generational, multi-cultural, multinational workforce that is increasingly interacting with advanced technologies such as AI and cobots.

  • Identifying, attracting, and encouraging next-generation talent and skills for tomorrow’s manufacturing workforce, including adopting new working cultures and ethical value systems, and by developing more effective ways to collaborate with educational institutions at all age levels and multiple types of community organizations.

Manufacturing 4.0 Sustainability

New analytical insights derived from Manufacturing 4.0 technologies help provide companies of all sizes with the opportunity to optimize the use of resources, achieve major efficiency gains, reduce time and materials in mass-customization, minimize waste and environmental impacts, and add direct value to the business. Successful engagement with customers, suppliers, partners and the next-generation workforce also requires manufacturers to become increasingly transparent about their environmental and socially-responsible practices.

Areas of Focus

  • Key M4.0 design technologies to support the intentional design of products for easier reuse, remanufacture, refurbishment, materials reclamation, or recycling at end of life.

  • Manufacturing 4.0 production and supply chain strategies that streamline processes to increase efficiency, reduce costs and waste, and ensure all resources, products, components, energy, and materials are kept at their highest utility and value at all times.

  • Holistic, sustainable manufacturing business models, supported by collaborative cross-sector partnerships and deeper community engagement that help create a circular manufacturing economy.

How We Develop Manufacturing Leadership’s Focus for the Year Ahead

Every year the Manufacturing Leadership Council and its Board of Governors votes on a set of unique Critical Issues to set the foundation for the year ahead.

Through a series of surveys and interviews conducted by the Council’s Editorial team, members of the Council provide direct feedback on the topics, challenges, and opportunities that they face on a day to day basis.

This data is analyzed, vetted, and presented to both the Council and Board who vote on the most relevant areas of interest, thereby setting the Agenda for the year.

This member-driven Agenda is leveraged to structure the upcoming year’s research (ML Journal), live events (Plant Tours and Summit), and virtual events (Critical Issues Roundtables and Decision Compass calls).

Setting the Critical Issues Agenda is one of the key roles of the Manufacturing Leadership Council and Board of Governors.

The Manufacturing Leadership Council Provides

The Council is comprised of the most innovative and insightful executives from all disciplines of manufacturing. The value members derive from these conversations they have with fellow members lead to both meaningful professional and personal relationships.

The Manufacturing Leadership Council Summit and Manufacturing Leadership Awards
The Council’s premier event for manufacturing executives offers a unique blend of senior-level content, interactive discussions and networking with industry peers, while the ML Awards honor manufacturing’s most elite companies and individuals.

Annual Manufacturing Leadership Council Meeting
This cornerstone event serves as the kickoff to the Manufacturing Leadership Summit. Council Members congregate to vote on the Critical Issues Agenda, network amongst each other, and share best practices and insights across the manufacturing spectrum.

Plant Tours
Get an up-close look at leading manufacturing facilities and operations while networking with like-minded peers and finding solutions to your own challenges. Current a virtual offering, live plant tours will resume when conditions allow.

The Council provides insights on the most important manufacturing business and technology developments and trends – including the Council’s “Critical Issues” — to help executives stay ahead of the curve.

The Manufacturing Leadership Journal
Seen as the “Harvard Business Review” for the manufacturing industry, the Manufacturing Leadership Journal contains Senior-level insights, case studies with leading companies and in-depth executive interviews with Council Members. The journal is available online and through an app.

Critical Issues Research Reports and Executive Surveys
These research studies combined with executive surveys give a barometric reading of important trends in manufacturing with a multi-dimensional view, including organization and leadership dimensions of a major Critical Issue that the Council Members have voted on as vital to address. These reports will allow you to assess where your organizations are by comparison and benchmark against a group of senior manufacturing leaders working in collaboration to address these issues.

Whether the subject is the Internet of Things, smart products, operational flexibility, or Big Data; the focus of Council meetings and discussions is on how to improve and advance business disciplines based on member insights, best practices, and research.

Critical Issues Roundtables
These bi-monthly, hour long virtual sessions focus on the aforementioned Critical Issues. Throughout the hour, based on the selected topic, members are privy to best practice, proven processes, and frameworks that they can take away and present to their own organization. These key takeaways are seen as invaluable and all roundtables hosted on an open and secure line, ensuring that information shared is trusted and confidential.

Decision Compass Groups
Otherwise known as “working groups,” these sessions are facilitated by expert member networking groups based on critical focus areas. Groups meet online, via teleconference calls to discuss best practices at their respective organizations. All discussions are confidential. Examples of these working groups include Operational Excellence, Digital M4.0 Technologies, Workforce Development et al.


2019 Working Group Topics

The Council’s programs and services are driven by its diverse group of executive members. Network with executives from different functions and industry sectors to gain insights on the cutting-edge ideas that are driving industry forward.

  • Live and Online Discussion Forums
  • Thought Leadership and Research Content
  • Conferences and Plant Tours
“We are facing many new challenges in the era of Manufacturing 4.0 – in technology as well as leadership and education. As Manufacturing 4.0 is mainly based on network progress, it will be essential to collaborate and learn as part of a network of thought-leaders across the industry. The MLC offers the right platform to achieve this goal. Tapping into colleagues, learning from others, compiling use cases, and, yes, even making mistakes and failing at times will all be part of the journey to Manufacturing 4.0. By coming together around a set of common issues and opportunities, the likelihood of that journey getting just a bit easier for everyone greatly increases.” Dr. Detlef Zühlke, Chairman of Germany’s SmartFactoryKL Technology Initiative and Scientific Director, Innovative Factory Systems at the German Research Center for AI
“Our future cyber/physical environment will be based on connectivity — connected products, connected supply chains, and connected factories. The Council’s leadership is needed to develop the roadmaps and the skilled people necessary to ensure that we can fully utilize the “Industrial Internet of Things” and deliver further progress on the key metrics of safety, quality and cost efficiency.” John Fleming, Former Executive Vice President of Global Manufacturing and Labor Affairs, Ford Motor Co

About The National Association of Manufacturers

The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) is the largest manufacturing association in the United States, representing small and large manufacturers in every industrial sector and in all 50 states. Manufacturing employs more than 12 million men and women, contributes $2.25 trillion to the U.S. economy annually, has the largest economic impact of any major sector and accounts for more than three-quarters of all private-sector research and development in the nation. The NAM is the powerful voice of the manufacturing community and the leading advocate for a policy agenda that helps manufacturers compete in the global economy and create jobs across the United States.

The NAM’s world-class staff of policy experts provide unmatched access and information on the key issues affecting your business and bottom line. We are on the front lines of a wide range of policy battles, from immigration reform and labor relations, to energy and the environment, to trade policy and taxes. At every turn, we are working on behalf of manufacturers in America to advance policies that help manufacturers do what they do best: create economic strength and jobs.

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