Thursday, 27 June 2013

The Trojan Horse and the Great Gasp

Generally speaking, digital manufacturing (3D printing) is seen as a benign development. People may be bewildered – how can it possibly work? – but underneath they accept that in some way they do not understand clever people will make it work and that it will be, somehow, liberating for ‘ordinary’ people.

What threatens our liberty, our autonomy, our ease with the world and its objects now is not so much the methods of manufacture as the economic and commercial structures of society within which those methods are set.

So our attitude to digital fabrication is at odds with public attitudes to new methods of manufacture – machine manufacturing – a century and a half ago when machines were seen as the new way in which ordinary people’s lives and livelihoods would be constrained and destroyed.

The tide has turned. It has turned already in the sense that few people now have much direct or meaningful involvement with the processes of manufacture. The machines won decades ago. As far as people now are involved in manufacture they are likely to be a minority of the population, their roles probably confined to tedious and uncomprehending assembly, probably not in our society but in third-world countries. In our own countries those who are meaningfully involved in manufacturing, those who actually produce objects, are likely to be marginal relicts – like furniture ‘designer-makers’.

So the 3D printer will set us free – one in everyone’s basement. It is a sign of the slight unreality of the debate that we think of basements, when few, in our country, have one. But, never mind, the general thought is valid.

How will we use them? Some people can, and are using them already, but the horizons are limited. Some part on your toaster, say, breaks. If you have another you can 3D scan it and print a replacement. Very useful, but essentially housekeeping – the duplication of trivial objects.

If it is a more substantial or larger object it is likely to require a design made available to you and your machine, which you can download. It may be available for free and thus begin to threaten commercial interests. It may enable you to vary in particular ways – size, additional elements for example – but essentially you are constrained by the design you have been ‘given’ – or maybe bought.

You may have the skills to create your own design from scratch to feed into your printer, but there is little sign that any but a small minority of the population are being educated to the level of computer skills necessary for that.

Nevertheless, manufacturing has come to our basement. You have choice. You can even choose your material – to some extent – including, if your machine is advanced enough, the manufacturing medium. It could even be wood, but it must be ‘engineered’ wood. Essentially, as I understand it, the manufacturing process requires that the material be mashed up, or melted, or dissolved so that it can be extruded or laid down in thin layers. So the connection with the material is lost not just by the fact that there is no hand involvement in the manufacturing. The process requires that the material, if it is not plastic or something similar in its properties, be denatured.

Manufacturing, fabrication, hitherto has largely evolved from the consideration of the particular properties of materials – wood, brass, stone, glass – and the invention of tools and methods to manipulate them. It is staggering to consider that such a vast array might be swept aside in digital manufacturing.

Amongst those larger and more substantial objects that might be considered for this new process, furniture plays a leading role. Substantial, universally required, various in appearance and not very complex in structure. What could be better? And perhaps the prime candidate amongst furniture types would be the chair. Essentially we would be making our chairs out of MDF. Not unprecedented but perhaps not ideal in use. The most extreme – and crudest – stage in the development of engineered timber whereby pieces of material that would formerly have been too small or substandard to be used are combined in manufacturing processes and with machines of staggering accuracy and complexity that hand skills, no matter how highly developed, could possibly emulate – thus covering our extinction of material of higher quality.

The chair is the Trojan Horse of furniture. Designers and architects have elevated its status to art object, design paragon or moral exemplar. Amongst furniture it has unique requirements for structural strength and, desirably if not essentially, ergonomic correspondence. All the rest of furniture – cupboards, tables, shelves – has relatively modest requirements in those directions and the qualities that shape its appearance and our relationship with it concern more the choice of form and pre-eminently the nature of the material, to the extent that material properties govern structure. Material properties, at least in wood, struggle to keep up with the engineering demands of the chair. The chair demands so many joints and joints are wood’s point of weakness.

The chair is a Johnny-come-lately in the world of furniture – there were tables and cupboards and benches long before it appeared and allowed the pretensions of designers, engineers and architects to find their expression, crowding out the skills and knowledge of mere furniture-makers – humble carpenters (who also built houses in the days when their engineering requirements were simple) and relegating them to an inferior or outdated status. We don’t have books published titles the Cupboard or even, I think, The Table, but there must be many books called The Chair (or perhaps 100 Chairs).It is ironic, but not of course contradictory, that the chair becomes the supreme example of ergonomic design and is also the piece of furniture that does most damage to our bodies: it is not desirable to spend much of one’s life sitting in even the most ergonomically designed chair.

Digital fabrication is the latest stage in that process. As yet it produces objects with a low quality of finish but one can be sure that will rapidly change and this will be another mechanised and automated process of manufacture that achieves things impossible for even the best tooled hand. In this respect also the chair has become the supreme furniture type for showing off such achievements. Often in contradiction to the ergonomic chair, the virtuoso maker’s chair, sumptuous and fantastical, clamours for our attention and bankrolls the reputation and status of the star craftsman in a way in which mere tables and cupboards struggle to keep up – though in this case they make the attempt.

Much has been achieved in the pursuit of the immaculate object by hand skills in the past twenty or thirty years (and of course in earlier times and cultures) but one suspects that, once the human hand is firmly excluded from the computerised machine’s operating cabinet, new heights will be reached by methods incomprehensible to most men.

When the reaction is the gasp of incomprehension or disbelief rather than the murmur of informed understanding what shall we have lost? What will be the point?