Digital manufacturing and design are drawing attention from innovators and investors alike. Sometimes referred to as “Industry 4.0” (especially in Europe) or as the “Industrial Internet” (General Electric’s term), these labels reflect a basket of new digitally-enabled technologies that include advances in production equipment (including 3-D printing, robotics, and adaptive CNC mills), smart finished products (such as connected cars and others using the Internet of Things), and data tools and analytics across the value chain.

These technologies are changing how things are designed, made, and serviced around the globe. In combination, they can create value by connecting individuals and machines in a new “digital thread” across the value chain—making it possible to generate, securely organize, and draw insights from vast new oceans of data. They hold the potential for disruptive change, analogous to the rise of consumer e-commerce. In 2010, when some two billion people connected online, the Internet contributed approximately $1.7 trillion to global GDP. What’s in store when 50 billion smart machines—deployed across factory floors, through supply chains, and in consumers’ hands—can connect with one another?

Competitors and policymakers are pooling their efforts to make that happen. In the past year, for example, more than 200 organizations from industry, government, and academia joined in supporting the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII) to advance digital integration in the manufacturing economy. Participants have committed more than $200 million to support the DMDII, and the US federal government is contributing an additional $70 million. Companies such as Caterpillar, GE, and P&G are among the industry partners. But even as the holy grail of a digitized value chain draws closer, industry leaders are expressing some prominent, common concerns.