On Digital Manufacturing and the Myth of Pressing the Button

As digital manufacturing enters the practise of artists, architects and creatives an appealing idea propagates – now you can just press a button and your crazy design gracefully enters the real world. Countless videos show in an almost magical way how fantastic shapes, without any fault or imperfection are effortlessly woven by a regular 3D printer or a more advanced robot arm. A milling machine creates a masterpiece all on its own and a 3D scanner gets all the perfect dimensions and all materials correctly – all of that at the click of a single button. Right.

Now there is nothing surprising about companies wanting to promote their products by demonstrating their flawless operations, but the perversion itself comes when even creatives support that utopian vision. There is this sense of pride when your design has been manufactured in a mystical technological way and it all goes as planned. No humans needed. Right?

Now ask these artists with how many operators and craftsmen they cooperate and how many hours of manual labour have been removed from the footage of those same videos. Indeed.

Take for example opendesk – a platform that encourages the so-called open making. You can just download the file of a drawing from their webpage, get it milled (or mill it yourself) and you have a desk! Now lets assume you finished the milling – you or someone you know or hired is a CNC milling machine operator and has a machine available. This is usually where the workflow, as described by most digital manufacturing companies, ends. However in the real world, real wood needs to be sanded afterwards. A lot of sanding! Then the parts need to be glued together and clamped. After one more heavy round of sanding comes the lack – at least 3 layers, sanding in between the layers as well, each taking around 8 hours to dry. After that comes assembly – this is when you see that wood will be wood and nothing really fits as it does in your 3D software, so you discover you need to sand a bit more. And after this entire process, which usually takes around 5-7 working days – you have a desk! And it is a beautifully crafted, original and truely yours. However the workflow was not exactly merely the click of a button…

I am not against dreaming of an ideal world of digital manufacturing – I believe that we need to aim high and dream big, because that is how progress can be fostered and boundaries pushed. I also strongly believe in the power of digital manufacturing and the maker movement. Nevertheless, I call for an open conversation and more honesty when it comes to new technology. It is not just a press of a button – it is hard work, just as it is with any other computer aided work. So lets celebrate that! Robots are not coming to take away our work, but they will certainly come and change it. If we don’t have an open discussion and awareness about how they work, how could we plan our own jobs? Automation is causing increasing unease around the world with large parts of society worrying about the future of their work. If we don’t start this conversation now, we might not be able to enter the new era of robotics, because our society won’t be prepared for it. What a shame would that be, since I am sure, this brave new world holds so many great possibilities and a next step in our development!



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