As most executives know, what you measure is as important as whether you measure—and when it comes to monitoring the health of "advanced manufacturing" in the U.S., we're all over the map.

Part of the problem is that we haven’t agreed on what the term "advanced manufacturing" means, let alone on how we should measure it. For too many, advanced manufacturing is determined by arbitrary characteristics: The "traditional" manufacturers—auto, steel and industrial machinery—are not advanced, while "newer" industries—aerospace, medical device and pharmaceutical industries—are advanced.

More enlightened people define advanced manufacturing by focusing on what is made, by whether the products feature the latest technology, require high levels of design and are technologically complex.

Others extend that definition to include how a product is made. They argue that advanced manufacturing is determined as much by the technology used to make a product as by the technology inherent in the product. To them, if you’re using one or more of a long list of production technologies—CAD, CAE, CAM for design; high performance computing (HPC) for modeling, simulation and analysis; advanced robotics, additive manufacturing and other intelligent systems for production; and information technologies to coordinate it all—then you are an advanced manufacturer.

A few would insist on the inclusion of management and leadership methodologies in the definition—lean management and production, Six Sigma, supply chain integration, and advanced planning and scheduling.

Still others look at the basic science component: that advanced manufacturing involves the rapid transfer of science and technology into manufacturing products and processes.

Getting this definition right is not an academic exercise. How we define "advanced manufacturing" determines the metrics we'll use to evaluate success, and shapes public policy and business strategy.

I believe that having a variety of definitions of "advanced manufacturing" has contributed to over a decade of underinvestment in U.S. manufacturing—by both public policymakers and too many business leaders. Without strong agreement about what advanced manufacturing means, we’ve over-valued some segments of the manufacturing sector and under-valued others.

The good news is I think we’re finally on our way to getting this right. The latest report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology,  Capturing Domestic Competitive Advantage in Advanced Manufacturing, offers a comprehensive definition of advanced manufacturing as a great starting point.

But we must act quickly. We can't afford to allow underinvestment in manufacturing to continue—and properly defining and measuring "advanced manufacturing" is a critical step in setting the right course for the future.