How a computer game could radically alter manufacturing
Here at The Engineer we’re used to explaining difficult concepts, whether it’s nuclear fusion or spintronics (actually I’m still not sure about that one). It helps that we have a receptive and enthusiastic audience and are tackling subject material that is usually instantly exciting.
But what if you had to explain something with less obvious appeal to people who think you might be wasting their time, for example, a complex new manufacturing business model to a group of sceptical bean counters? It’s probably not a conversation you’d want to have at a dinner party.
The answer to this might be to make the explanation into a game, according to one research group at least. Make the process fun, entertaining and engaging, and the audience might be more likely to understand and remember the concept, and perhaps even become more enthusiastic about it.
A team led by Aston University Business School are about to do just this by starting a five-year research project on the gamification of explaining servitisation. Now comes the bit where I explain what this boring and complicated-sounding concept actually is.
A product service system (PSS) is a business model where a firm offers both products and services. Rolls-Royce, for example, is well known for earning around 50 per cent of its revenue through service and support contracts, providing things such as maintenance and advice to customers that also buy its goods. Simply put, servitisation is when a straightforward manufacturing company adopts this model.
Particularly in developed marketplaces and economies, servitisation offers companies a chance to make more money than they would simply by selling products and competing against other manufacturers. Described like this, it sounds rather simple and very attractive. But making it a reality is a far more complex procedure with many barriers, and so servitisation of manufacturing firms has been slow.
Prof Tim Baines of Aston University argues that one of the biggest barriers to adoption of PSS is just explaining how the process of servitisation works. ‘To try to get those ideas across to someone in a manufacturing company in five or 10 minutes in a way that makes sense to them is quite challenging,’ he says.
This is where he believes gamification could come in. This is another slightly off-putting piece of jargon that basically means turning a process into a game. It’s not a new concept but has found growing popularity in recent years thanks to the growth of the internet and smartphones. There are any number of websites and apps that encourage you to do something by making it a game and rewarding you in some for participation.
For example, if you want to get fit but struggle to find the motivation, an app on your phone can monitor your progress to give you encouragement, telling you how many calories you’ve burnt or giving you badges for completing certain levels. One app even asks you to image you’re being chased by zombies and the only way to escape them is to run to a certain place.
But how will this work for explaining servitisation? Baines is planning to work with the Serious Games Institute at Coventry University and Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre to create a computer simulation of a business adopting PSS. Companies, including Ford and Xerox, will then be brought in to test the game. ‘One of the big barriers is understanding, getting across the basic ideas and the language used, an appreciation of what it can actually mean,’ says Baines.
‘We’ll create a demonstration first of all so that we can communicate to the gaming community what we’re trying to do. The big hurdle is translating between these two communities, explaining to the gaming community what it is that we’re trying to model and them explaining to us what makes an engaging game. We’ve got to try to find the middle ground and from that we’ll create the basics of the game.’
It would be easy to write this concept of gamification off as a fad or a buzzword. For one thing, it doesn’t sound like the most fun idea for a game but, then again, there have been whole series of popular computer games designed around simulating real-life industries (Sim City, for example). And this won’t be the first time games are used to explain manufacturing concepts. Team games have been used before to demonstrate and introduce Western manufacturers to the Japanese-originated ideas of lean manufacturing.
Perhaps it will take more than a computer game to persuade companies to adopt dramatically different business models, but Baines hopes the game will do more than just change individual’s minds. ‘I would like it to be something quite pervasive that people inside the organisation become aware of and have a go at it, and for the top managers to hear about it not just from academics but also from people within the organisation who get to know about this thing called servitisation from playing the game.’
The game will also serve as a way for academics to further study servitisation so they can better understand the barriers to adopting PSS when it is attempted by real companies.
With gamification spreading even into business management techniques, it’s interesting to consider how else it could be used in manufacturing or other parts of the economy. Perhaps games could become a more common sight at work, motivating people to complete tasks or reach certain levels of achievement. On the other hand, you could argue we already run such a reward system. It’s called getting paid.