US Manufacturing is in a few quandaries right now. Between several rocks and hard places. It sometimes feels like we’re at the bottom of a pit, looking up at several Buffalo Bills who’re telling us to ‘put the lotion in the basket.’

But ingenuity has a way of changing the game. Despite misguided economists, debilitating trade deficits, and off-putting tax rates & regulations (all of which aren’t new, just more ominous than we’re used to), manufacturers have always managed to turn the corners for those that only think they’re driving the bus.

An example – albeit in its earliest stages – can be found in the convergence of cloud computing, mobile apps, and gamification within the manufacturing sector.

Here are 5 ways that this emerging technology landscape can help to solve many of the challenges faced by US manufacturing in the coming few years.

  1. STEM & Education – Of course, we all know that fewer students and young people these days are choosing careers in science, technology, engineering & math. But there are emerging signs that gamification can have legs to attract and engage a new generation to apply their talents to making tangible things. For a fine example, check out The National STEM Video Game Challenge, a competition for high school & collegiate students to design games within and around the topics of STEM. (The 2012 challenge has just closed for accepting entries; judging is currently in progress.) Look through this site, and see how talented these young people are, and the impact this technology can have on them. But also note what you WON’T find – not one sponsor from manufacturing or industry. The next time you hear a large corporation harping about our lack of next-generation talent, ask ’em what’s up with THAT …
  2. Productivity – Currently, the availability of apps that directly relate to meaningfully precise manufacturing roles and processes is in its infant stages. Like with the Web itself in ’95, we’re still trying to figure it all out. Most apps you’ll find available on the open market these days either aid in basic manufacturing & engineering math, materials/metallurgy, or similar role support. (You can find a fairly decent list in MMSOnline’s Links Repository, currently in beta.) As for internal operations & administration support, many companies have ported or are planning to port their ERP, CRM, and other support systems to an ‘internal cloud’ to be accessed via mobile or portable devices. As these applications mature and evolve, manufacturers of all sizes and supply chain complexities can benefit substantially via productivity, data management, peer-to-peer communications, and efficiency. Other examples of productivity-focused apps include The Engineering Calculator, Compcalc, and element14 Everywhere. There are great strides still to be made to improve operations productivity through apps, but it’s going to take time for developers and manufacturers to recognize and define the value in them.
  3. Narrowing The Skills Gap – Finding employees with the right skills & experience has been frustrating for US manufacturing businesses over the last 10 years. And now that there’s the opportunity for reshoring significant production back to the US from offshore sources, it’s getting down-right critical. This video of a computer simulated welder is a great example of how simulators, apps & gamification could accelerate the speed of up-training personnel into new roles, new technologies, and even basic competencies on the shop floor. (Video hat tip: @ToyotaEquipment <- follow him on Twitter, you won’t be disappointed.)
  4. Marketing – The current batch of many apps produced by manufacturing companies are overtly self-serving. That is, they focus primarily on the products or services they provide – which is fine, I suppose. But there’s also great room for growth in marketing a company’s value proposition by creating and delivering apps that are valuable and useful to their markets, and not just to sell their own services or products.
  5. Improving The Image Of Manufacturing – Perhaps the best example you’ll find of a company creating & maintaining an app/game for promoting the image of manufacturing is Plantville from Siemens. The online game – playable from a desktop, laptop, or any portable device – simulates the Plant Manager experience by focusing players on solving several real-world, real-time plant challenges like product quality, lead times, inventories, quality, customer service, and others. The beauty of this application is in its authenticity – by presenting a realistic shop floor experience, it naturally attracts those with the interests and passions for manufacturing, AND it smells right to them. That is, they know they’re not being misled. And that’s key to the potential and influence this technology can have on the future US industrial posture – trust.

We’re seeing improvements lately in manufacturing & the US economy, but we still have lots of work to do.

Adopting these technologies won’t solve a thing on its own, especially in these early stages. But like the tools and tangible technologies manufacturers master & deploy each day on shop floors around the world, they can give us footholds to solve a few pressing issues. AND get us started into applying and improving them to serve manufacturing’s unique needs. We see the challenges. Now let’s get our hands dirty.

Game on.