11/22/2013 04:42 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Where Have All the 3D Dreamers Gone?

I'm not sure if you saw the headline in the New York Times the other day: "Car Mechanic Dreams Up a Tool to Ease Births".

It was a pretty cool story about how a mechanic, after seeing a video of someone retrieving a cork from a wine bottle, literally dreamt that night about adapting the method to extract babies stuck in the birth canal. The product looks promising, and it's on its way to market. But the headline was written to play a bit with our conventional wisdom about mechanics. I mean, who would have ever guessed a mechanic, of all people, to could come up with such an idea? To think!

But I was not the least bit surprised.

Mechanics are just one group of people who tend to have a high level of spatial intelligence, which some researchers at Vanderbilt University have defined as the mental ability to: "generate, retain, retrieve and transform well-structured visual images."

It's a critical form of intelligence, but one that often goes unappreciated. Yet it's essential for a wide range of professionals, from surgeons, dentists and pilots, to manufacturing engineers and machinists, to welders and mechanics. Even interior designers need a high level of spatial intelligence.

I've been thinking a bit about spatial intelligence these days after talking to a source while researching some new, five-axis, work-holding solutions for Manufacturing Engineering magazine. He told me that although flexible five-axis machining centers have grown rapidly in popularity, and have become financially accessible to many shop floors, many of these shops are not actually using these expensive machines to their full capabilities.

Unfortunately, he said, too many operators can't get their heads around programming the machines for single setup operations, which requires some complex 3D thinking. So, instead, they are using their five-axis machines to do an individual series of precision functions, just as they might have done before they had the advanced machine in the first place.

As we discussed the nature of the problem, he assured me that "thinking in three dimensions is very complicated," even for a seasoned veteran.

All of this got me to thinking about our nation's shortage of skilled manufacturing professionals, and the many dimensions of our skills gap. Or, more specifically, our spatial skills gap.

There are, of course, many forms of intelligence in this world, and it would be impossible for educators to test for and cultivate all of them. But, I think our educational system is doing children and society a bit of a disservice by generally putting everything into two buckets, verbal and mathematical, and ignoring spatial intelligence, a distinct skill that should be recognized and cultivated in those who show an aptitude.

A team at Vanderbilt University wrote about the importance of spatial ability in the STEM fields in the Journal of Educational Psychology, and has advocated testing for spatial ability in schools. That team noted: "The need to identify and nurture scientific and technical talent has never been greater."

They wrote that the neglect of spatial ability in education, which they called an "important dimension of cognitive functioning, leads to untapped pools of talent," adding: "Contemporary talent searches miss many intellectually talented students by restricting selection criteria to mathematical and verbal ability measures."

As the manufacturing industry continues to move toward incredibly advanced five-axis machines and robots, the demand for a spatially skilled workforce is growing rapidly. So I ask: How will our already-challenged industry be able to identify the people who can program and operate these complex machines?

This article originally appeared in Manufacturing Engineering Media.