The Future Industrial Worker

David Boulay, IMEC, President of the Illinois Manufacturing Excellence Center

Manufacturing Insights

How technology is changing job requirements

The tec.News team interviewed David Boulay, President of the Illinois Manufacturing Excellence Center (IMEC) for insights into manufacturing business challenges. IMEC serves the range of manufacturing company needs when they are looking for answers in many areas including long-term, near-term and reactive dealing with a crisis or great opportunity.

The Illinois Manufacturing Excellence Center (IMEC) is a not-for-profit organization focused on assisting small and midsize manufacturers improve global competitiveness.

IMEC is the official Illinois representative of the United States Department of Commerce National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) National Network. The MEP National Network is a unique public-private partnership that delivers comprehensive, proven solutions to U.S. manufacturers, fueling growth and advancing U.S. manufacturing.

IMEC serves a diverse group of approximately 12,500 manufacturers, 99 % of them are the small and midsize with 70 % less than 20 employees. The IMEC approach provides resources and technical assistance to help them be more competitive. In 2020 IMEC assisted 1,144 companies leading to 6,176 jobs created and retained with an aggregate estimated impact of over $ 646 million. As a result, IMEC has demonstrated a return on investment that exceeds 19:1. This is made possible as organizations become more effective and efficient assisted by IMEC.

The IMEC approach is to meet with companies one on one to understand their needs and provides services, resources, and information to help them develop leadership, strategy, effective customer engagement, business operations, workforce development, technology investments, and define key performance indicators.

The IMEC Recognition Program provides companies an opportunity to increase their visibility as a manufacturer and improve by applying the Baldrige Excellence Framework to guide Illinois organizations to higher levels of performance. The Framework is a validated, leading-edge model for leadership and drives improvement and innovation where it’s needed most.


For any manufacturing company, small to large, skilled workforce development and improving productivity through automation are critical topics for increasing market share and improving competitiveness. The wide array of technologies disrupting the marketplace promises profound impacts on the business models, processes, and workforce needs of small and mid-sized manufacturers. These companies face the daunting task of understanding technologies, determining the most effective investments, and engaging appropriate resources and expertise. Integrating these technologies is now an absolute must. One of the goals of the IMEC is to help small and midsize manufacturers define the opportunities, scout the technology options, and find the right solution for investment.

Manufacturers can receive support to identify, adapt, and implement automation technologies to build core strengths that will enable them to rebound even stronger from the pandemic. IMEC has identified these core areas that will have the most substantial impact on a company’s profitability:

  • Creating business case for robotics and flexible automation technologies
  • Developing a technology deployment roadmap
  • Finding reliable vendors
  • Optimizing processes
  • Implementing strong project management structure

Companies that adhere to this improve market competitiveness, efficiency, productivity, quality, innovation, cost savings, connectivity, skilled labor gaps.


The Cook County Bureau of Economic Development partnered with the Illinois Manufacturing Excellence Center (IMEC) to ascertain the unprecedented impact of COVID-19 pandemic on the manufacturing community with a survey of manufacturers to gain insight into their most pressing needs. Based on a survey of over 1,000 manufacturing firms the report, Urgent Priorities of Suburban Cook County (Illinois) Manufacturers was published March 2021 providing insights into how manufacturing firms are coping with, managing through, and preparing to exit the COVID-19 pandemic. The company size based on number of employees is:

  • 69 ­% under 20 employees
  • 18 ­% 20–49 employees
  • 6 ­% 50–99 employees
  • 7 ­% 100 or more employees

The survey asked companies to rank 10 factors from most urgent to least urgent. There were some differences of priorities based on company sizes but not surprising improve safety, hygiene, and sanitation were high priorities for all certainly a reaction to the pandemic crisis. All the factors are important with creating growth opportunities, increasing productivity, supply chain disruptions, and having a skilled workforce are compelling and interrelated issues. Finding skilled workers has been an issue prior to the pandemic that is an ongoing challenge.


Implementing digital manufacturing technologies to be competitive and prosperous companies need to attract, train, retrain skilled workforce. As manufacturing companies implement new technologies into their production lines, the skillset of the worker will naturally shift. Future workers need to be comfortable, knowledgeable and competent with automation technologies. For example, if a manufacturing company implements robots or cobots into their factory, workers will need to learn how to program, maintain, and run them. When thinking about a technology roadmap, it is critical that companies implement recruitment programs and training initiatives, or they will not be able to maximize the benefits of such technologies to be competitive and profitable.

This is an important area of focus for the IMEC and should be at the forefront of any manufacturing company’s roadmap anywhere in the world.


IMEC is a team of improvement specialists and technicians dedicated to providing organizations in Illinois with the tools and techniques to create sustainable competitive futures. The experienced hands-on team at IMEC works closely with its clients to plan critical business improvements in the areas of Leadership, Strategy, Customer Engagement, Operations, and Workforce. With more than 50 full-time staff and partners positioned statewide, IMEC delivers the local expertise to not only plan and strategize, but to implement and evaluate the effectiveness of client improvements. In fact, IMEC assists more than 700 companies each year with successful business improvement projects.