I am fortunate to be in a position in which people send me a lot of interesting things to look at, to read, to comment on and to absorb into my teaching and research. Much of what I see has to do with digital design and fabrication technologies – hardly a day goes by without an article appearing in some major publication about how digital manufacturing will bring work back to our shores, or make houses less expensive and more responsive, or provide us with the ability to design our own parametrically-varied (name your favorite product) and have it 3D-printed while we wait! Schools world-wide have purchased “rapid-prototyping” or “time-reduction” tools” and have changed their curriculums to incorporate them, often without much thought to their actual practical use in the real manufacturing world. Here is a typical quote from a recent article about a school that has incorporated new tools: ” If used correctly, time reduction technologies can greatly benefit a student’s learning experience and project outcomes, enabling them to design and make forms that would be impossible to produce in any other way.”
“If used correctly” is a key phrase here – but what does that mean? And what shapes, exactly, are really “impossible to produce in any other way”? Are they good? Necessary? Are they able to be produced en masse?
Robots, laser-cutters, 3D-printers, laser-scanners and now more conventional digitally-enabled machine tools ARE both exciting and game-changing, but they are no longer “new” technologies. Companies that make everything from blue-jeans to jumbo jets have been incorporating these technologies for well over three decades – or proposing to do so in very public ways. So why do we experience the continued cyclical focus on mass-customization & digital manufacturing and why the hyperbole? More importantly to me is the question of why the role of Design isn’t part of the discussion.
Certainly part of the equation is that many of the technologies are becoming ubiquitous and accessible and this is newsworthy – the maker culture now competes/coalesces with cultures of craft, public hacker spaces are now common-place, and access to once-exotic tools is easy. A laser cutter for use by patrons was recently installed in café in Japan for example.
Another factor is that we are getting much better at incorporating the “new” tools into our workflow so we are seeing a lot more product which is, again, newsworthy. Once the realm of cutting-edge artists such as Roxy Paine and design gurus of all stripes, the reality of creating parametrically-differentiated objects, or objectiles has been main-streamed through the formal education of tens-of-thousands of design students and many more learners using on-line tutorials and dialogues.
Finally, the “wow” factor continues to create a buzz every time a new audience is found. I had breakfast this morning with my dad, and he mentioned how his weekly ROMEO lunch group (for the youngsters in the crowd that stands for Retired Old Men Eating Out) had a pie-eyed discussion about 3D-printing, one of many rapid-prototyping technologies that are now almost 25-years old. For a guy whose first car was a used Ford Model A, sure, 3D-printing is amazing.
New ways of making, and new ways to incorporate them into the design process have been with us since we began banging on things to break them apart and chipping stones to make carving tools. People who became proficient in banging and chipping became tool-makers. Tool users developed their crafts, and developed design skills based on the direct contact of hand with tool, tool with material. As design became an independent activity we developed standards by which to judge it. There are good reasons that some things become icons of design and other things don’t – reasons we can discuss and argue for and change our minds about. I have to wonder as I read yet another treatise on developments in digital-design-and-fabrication technologies (here is a recent one) if the tools aren’t taking over too much of the conversation.
What isn’t talked much about is that that mass-manufacturing of most singular things from coffee cups to lawn chairs to clothing will continue to cost significantly less than mass-customized manufacturing of those same things, and that is what we’ll continue to see on the shelves of our stores and in our on-line catalogues for a very, very long time. All of those things still need to be designed well. Sure, the “new” tools are cool in the same way that the steam engine once probably was, but they are no longer new, and Design is cooler. That should be newsworthy too.
Kimo Griggs, Associate Professor, is an architect and fabricator, teaching design studios and workshop-based coursework in materials, making, and digital-design-and manufacturing technologies. Kimo’s research and professional activities have long been focused on the intersection of craft, materials and manufacturing technologies. This trajectory has included the development of hands-on, workshop-based coursework incorporating these elements, with a particular emphasis on digital-design-and-manufacturing technologies.
Feature image sourced here.