Endless Chair — Dirk van der Kooij

The art and craft of the machine

Comments on Lassi Patokorpi’s MA Thesis “3D Printing, the Arts and Crafts Movement and the Democratization of Art”

In this MA thesis — 3D Pprinting, the Arts and Crafts Movement and the Democratization of Art — there are things I cannot agree more with, and other I ought to discuss. It is a very pleasant work to read, precise, well documented and pretty insightful about the opportunities the 3D printing technology bring back to the table. I definitely recommend any maker to read it.

Printing clay machine

Here ‘3D printing’ is understood as the ‘digital manufacturing processes’. I must confess that 3D Printing is a pretty appealing technology, so appealing that it sometimes becomes a caricature ; these machines indeed perform something close to our fantasy of the embodiment of immaterial ideas right into matter. What a great feeling of playing God.

But unfortunately, even as new as they may be, these machines are just machines, goods more than tools, and art or creation is something of another origin. Moreover, I have to confess that when I read articles or books mentioning this technology, I get the feeling that from a ‘fetichism of the goods’, we may have now switched to a ‘fetichism of the automated machine’, be it SIRI, Google Car, 3D Printer. Does that 3D Printing really augment us ? The topic of this MA thesis would have better be the ‘peer production’, rather than a single industrial process.

3D Printing indeed performs something close to our fantasy of the embodiment of immaterial ideas right into matter. What a great feeling of playing God!

If these 3D machines were empowering us, what about letting young kids play with them by themselves for a week and see what may come out of it. It is likely that nothing may come right out of it, if they don’t first explore how to use computers, CAD, material resistance and some of these machines parameters. To free these kids, we should better teach them how to first make with their hands. Or better, make with others. Sorry for that short digression.

For us, grown up with computers and smartphones right at the end of our finger tips, these machines happen to complete our set of tools, made of computer, CAD and open source connected database. And yes, these 3Dprinting machines are quite stunning for empowering us, people who were stuck into the digital realm, to reach part of the manufacturing world.

The wrong idea, though, would be to think that these machines enable us to make without having to master the gestures, the matter and the making processes. When you go from ‘handicraft’ to ‘digital craft’, you reduce the gestures of the hand to single finger taps, and thus restrain abilities of self expression. If we see ourselves as ‘single-finger-handicapped’, either we plug machines onto our finger in order to augment our body betting on the fact that with more body we could express better, either we learn to practice with our feet or lips to master fine art painting technics and express our feelings. Works from painters-from-the-feet-and-the-mouth are quite stunning, convey the eye of the painter, and express his feelings. Machines should never seen as a fix to our expression skills.

The wrong idea, though, would be to think that these machines enable us to make without having to master the gestures, the matter and the making processes.

Yes, as stated in Patokorpi’s MA thesis, the 3d printing will shake industrial processes, because it already does since decades. Even more, the 3D printers we know of are simplified versions of the professional tools. The thing that would really change industry would be “freeing” the machines on the assembly line, and let community of makers use them.

What I mean by “freeing”, is making them accessible to regular people, communities of potential makers. When a machine is taken away from the assembly line, freed, it thus becomes available to people to do something with, rather than waiting for workers to operate them in order to perform what it was programmed for. Putting the machine out of the assembly line and away from the single industrial process changes the way you look at machine ; from a “work station” it becomes a “tool” indeed. You are not at the machine’s service, it is at your service. Makerspaces, Hackerspaces and Fablabs are this kind of place with self-service machines.

WoMa_paris team, happy and willing to share their machine and know-how.

Here lays also the other point of the use of technology : whether the technologies are neutral and open for everyone, or if they are a tool to constrain people. If the objective is to empower people, as ‘digital craftsmen’, then he or she shall never stick to a single machine, nor even a single industrial process. Instead, he or she will look to master many different types of tools, materials and technics, as a 3D printed object will require electronic inside, and even programming. Rather that democratizing 3D Printing, access to skills, or access to skilled people, is a quicker way to empower people ans boost their creative abilities.

Having saying that, here are some visions that are incorrect (I have read them in other papers too, this MA thesis isn’t the only one to mistake where 3D Printing could be leading us) :

« The toothbrush could be an open source stock model downloaded from the Internet for free, a customization of it, or it could be of the person’s own design. »

Does putting my coffee pod into my Nespresso machine make me a new coffee-digital-craftsmen ? And when concluding from the 3D Printed Tooth Brush behavior that the “cottage-industry”ideal may reappear,

« It is a return, if you will, to a cottage industry model of production and consumption that has not been seen since the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution. »

Let read Émile Zola again, ‘Le Travail’ published in 1901. Zola was a big fan of the emerging electric power. In ’Le Travail’, he develops a vision of people to locally producing and consuming their own electricity, thus de-centralizing the factories powered by steam or charcoal into smaller scale production units, cottage-industry like, owned and ruled by workers themselves. In 1901, what a dream! And in 1901 in France, there was still know-how embedded into local people, institutions and workshops. The technology of electricity by itself was not a sufficient tool to guide toward a more distributed manufacturing world.

« Commonplace 3D printing would bring production closer to the people and consequently change the way people think about “things”. »

Yes, indeed, these machines — when freed — brings part of the making process into a reach of regular people, who used to either operate the machine as a job, either buy the goods they were producing. People may be curious about these machines, but again, through a single process, nothing much may be achieved. Even a toothbrush may require several tools or machines, different materials, and different finish.

making OpenDesk furniture at WoMa_Paris

If I take the example of OpenDesk, from the file downloaded from internet to the chair I seat on, there are quite a few steps to perform : finalizing the .tap file adapted to the plywood width, getting the proper ply wood sheet, choosing the right mill, adjusting the rotation speed to get a good time-spent versus smooth-edges ratio, waiting, taking the pieces out, sanding, adding finish, letting it dry, assembling and then, seat. The magical process of “digital” craft is far from reality yet. Or maybe if you order online, on a web interface through which you may customize your chair with your name or wood type, and receive it ready to assemble at home. That would be magic, but then it would be close to the image I shared before, the industry giving access to their machines and assembly line to regular end users.

But let us be honest, such an automated service — some exist already — would not make me a craftsmen, just a consumer of ready-to-customize goods. Far away from a socialist revolution, isn’t it.

The amazing quality we shall acknowledge to platforms like OpenDesk or Wikihouse mentioned in the MA thesis, is that non designers, non architects, non carpenters, non engineers may benefit from technical knowledge architects, designers, carpenters and engineers embedded within downloadable files. Make a chair or a barn from scratch will take you time to figure out some right dimensions, stable structure, material resistance calculation. The files you download have these amazing value embedded right into it.

The team of Ferment, a cooking-fablab space in Fujisawa, Japan

And here is the magic part that the digital manufacturing processes highlight — once the machines are freed : the peer production community. People not machines.

If OpenDesk had designed a chair to be baked into a digital bread oven, or sewed on a digital sewing machine, we would be discussing about how bread or sewing machines show us the way to our cottage-industry lives.

Knowledge, know how, discussions, sharing ideas, makerspaces are what makes a ‘socialist revolution’ possible. Like at Morris’s time, the guild, the workshop, artists never express alone. The real game changer is the connected maker community, developing processes and projects to enable people to do, connecting their machines to computer and internet, yes the machines they freed, developing open source licenses, gathering know-how and MOOCs, people who believe anyone can make everything, here and now, whatever tool, machine or process they need to perform, they’ll find a way.

Their skill is to show how to develop one’s creativity, to make people want to express themselves in what they do. Democratization of Art will always be a matter of expression, and not s matter of random algorhythm added to an automated process in order to make it ‘unique’, it is a matter of feeling, of the way to look at the world, of willing to state something one’s want to state, of making one’s criticism acute.

The ‘Sketch Furniture’ project by FRONT

And if in the automated 3D printing process you want to embed a bit of imperfection, instead of adding more untouched random alogorhythm, what about Sketch furnitures by FRONT. Or just plugging a graphic tablet onto the 3D printer extruder and command it live. Draw, make some gesture with your hand, and command the machine in front of you. That would be a way to recompose an interface, and get rid of some cumbersome layers of CAD, machine program and design process. Just draw and experience what you do on matter, see what structures works, how material perform, etc. Kids would love it, don’t you think!

PS: to make a great home made tooth brush, take a licorice root and chew.