Why Manufacturing Needs a TV Makeover

If there’s challenge facing the world of design, engineering, and product development, it’s the Skills Gap. Unless you’re either very lucky or have been hiding under a rock, I’m sure you’ll be aware of this simple fact.

While the statistics around the dearth of engineering talent coming into the industry are almost as abundant as the unfulfilled roles, it is worth looking at some of the numbers. A recent report by the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte stated: “Over the next decade, nearly three and a half million manufacturing jobs likely need to be filled and the skills gap is expected to result in 2 million of those jobs going unfilled.”

Manufacturing in Popular Media

Part of the issue is that, in the media, the representation of the “Manufacturing Industry” is a confused one. It’s often the case that the term itself is used to describe everything that happens in the process of creating a product. Manufacturing covers not only ideation and conceptualisation, but design, engineering, manufacturing, and assembly.

I live in an area of the UK that was formerly a powerhouse of manufacturing. We made engines, cars, motorcycles, locks, all in the small city. Today, when discussing “manufacturing”, you’ll invariably find the news anchor linking to a series of B-roll footage of a man (it’s sadly and invariably always a man), clad in grubby blue overalls, stood at a press brake, churning out ambiguous hunks of metal into a parts bin.

Steel worker

Image: Man making ambiguous hunks of metal.

The Other Side of Manufacturing

For those reading this blog, the chances are that your experience of “manufacturing” is very different. Today’s design and engineering-focused companies are not typical of the media’s perception. Even in my city, the news teams could visit the Jaguar LandRover engine plant and see that engineering and manufacturing are not dirty, manual jobs any more. Look at the world in which we operate now. Never before has it been more exciting.

Advances in technology. In the automotive world, we’re seeing a shift from fossil fuel-based vehicles to cleaner cars - that’s bringing a whole new set of challenges. Space is finally grasping the public’s consciousness again - thanks to SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and of course, the folks at NASA. Industrial and consumer product design has seen a rebirth of late in existing brands. At the same time, the Internet of Things is driving an interest in the process of designing functional yet beautiful objects that might reside in our homes or on our bodies.

Alternative sources for funding. Today, we have more accessibility to sources of funding for hardware development than ever before. Ten (or even, five) years ago, could you imagine a team coming up with an idea, gaining funding to build out the prototypes and first production run to establish themselves? That’s happening every week on Kickstarter or Indiegogo.

Startup incubators. What’s more, there is help out there that would not have previously been accessible - whether it’s an incubator or accelerator program, they’re popping up everywhere, globally. Whether it’s Bolt or Hax, Makerversity or TechShop, there are a multitude (and growing number) of organisations that are geared up to help those with an idea take it forward.

I recently had the pleasure to speak at lengthto a small startup (more on this in time!). Two years ago, the team had an idea for a home security product - that product is now in production. Five years ago, that would have been near impossible and certainly not allowed that team to retain control of the company they’ve built.

Opportunity abounds. Looking at all of the above, it’s clear that this isn’t your father’s or your mother’s engineering any more. Today, we have more opportunity to flex our creative and strategic thinking muscles than ever before in ways that are more diverse and fascinating.

If we’re to close the skills gap, the mainstream media needs to entice the next generation of engineers and designers into the field by reflecting what today’s manufacturing world looks like, rather than propagating decades old stereotypes. I’ve seen first hand what happens when you show younger kids how designers and engineers work today, I’ve seen that light bulb moment. If we want to close the skills gap, we just need more of them switching on.

Al Dean is Editor-in-Chief of DEVELOP3D Magazine (http://www.develop3d.com). This blog post is paid for by PTC. The concepts, ideas and positions of this post have been developed independently by Al Dean.