Does digital fabrication technology lower the barriers to making?

(Note: this is part of a series of half-formed thoughts. The usual caveats apply.)

The question is left intentionally generic. In practice, the sentiment takes many more specific forms, often unstated, or expressed as a sense of optimism, rather than explicit arguments. Nevertheless, I have talked with many people who are either proponents of digital fabrication tools (3D printers, laser cutters, CNC mills large and small, and so on) or who have encountered them at a Maker Faire or seen them on TV, and express this in some way:

  • Now anyone can be a maker!
  • You can 3D-print the thing you want, not the generic mass-produced version
  • Design something and it can be distributed globally and fabricated on demand (with the corollaries: 1. your market as a maker is global, and 2. this will enable a new revitalised, sustainable, local manufacturing).

To be clear, many people are exploring these issues critically, but there is a high volume of noise (often made by people with something to sell) that should be cut through. I have 3 main concerns:

1. Assembly is the greater part of making

This applies particularly in the case of 3D printing. In most cases, it is far better to make use of existing materials, whether they be bricks,  metal extrusions, fabrics or plywood, to cut and assemble these to form structures, than to digitally grow/print/fabricate structures from scratch.

These materials have structural, mechanical and aesthetic properties that are impossible to replicate by extruding or sintering plastic; they are readily available, and manufactured to consistent standards. Assembly can be digital of course, and I think this is where it gets interesting; robots welding, stitching, glueing existing materials to form new structures. An example is this plywood pavilion in which the individual sheets of ply have been formed and also stitched together by robots.


2. Software is a significant barrier, relative to non-digital making skills

What is the barrier that is being overcome? The craft skills of woodwork, sewing, or metalwork? It’s true these skills take practice to master. Maybe 10,000 hours to master fully. But as anyone who’s tried to send a file to a laser cutter, or design a 3D model in CAD will tell you, software brings with it its own barriers. And the binary failure of digital tools is in many ways a more dispiriting one than the partial failure of an unpracticed maker using hand or machine tools.

3. Making mediated by software is an impoverished kind of craft; this disengagement from the material world is not something to be celebrated

As a general rule, I’d say it’s good to get your hands dirty, to smell the earth, to work up a sweat, to touch the world. There are limits, for example unsafe or unhealthy industrial work, but I don’t think we should be rushing to spend more time sitting behind computers.

That’s my sentiment, and I lack an argument to rationalise it. I’d be curious to hear what the counter is.

So that’s my digital scepticism in a nutshell. Being reactionary is rarely a good strategy, so I’m uninterested in attitudes that simply dismiss technology, and try to resist it. However, I am interested in designing technologies that can better serve us, whether they be social networks, smart cities or fabrication tools, and I would like to see greater engagement with the challenges of these tools.