Automation vs. Craftsmanship

Centuries ago, if you needed a piece of furniture, you made a deal with a local craftsman and it would be produced by hand with hand tools.  With the industrial revolution, machines came along that could do the job faster, cheaper and more precisely.  As a result, hand craftsmanship became less of a necessity.  And then craftsmen started using power tools.

Woodworking has progressed from hand tools to power tools and now to computer controlled equipment.  At each stage the woodworkers of the day probably lamented that the new equipment was taking all the craftsmanship out of woodworking.

The uniqueness and creativity of handmade pieces would certainly seem to be at odds with items produced by automated equipment like CNC machines and 3D printers.  And yet both methods can produce very high quality results. We like the lower prices of mass produced items but does the rise of automation doom old fashioned craftsmanship?

Let’s look at the differences in the new technologies.  You could characterize all prior building methods as ‘subtractive”.  At each stage, tools were used to remove material by cutting or sanding to get it to the desired size and shape.  That’s true of hand tools, power tools and CNC equipment.  On the other hand, 3D printing, the latest technology to arise is an ‘additive’ process where a 3 dimensional object is constructed by adding layers of material one at a time.

Here is brief look at the two computerized processes:

CNC stands for Computerized Numerical Control.  The first NC machines were built in the 1940s and 1950s based on existing power tools.  Instructions were delivered by punched tape.  Today’s CNC machines are controlled by a stream of digitized instructions from a computer that allows them to precisely repeat operations with very tight tolerances. A human could not duplicate the machines’ accuracy, consistency and productivity.

3D Printing is the latest innovation.  It also uses digital commands from a computer but it builds up solid objects by laying down successive layers of material.  Each layer is like a thinly sliced cross-section of the final project.  The concept was patented in the mid 1980’s by Chuck Hull.  Since its invention the process has been rapidly advancing with larger, faster printers, and more materials that can be used.  There is one drawback – as an emerging technology, 3D printing is still expensive.

These are disruptive technologies but what do they mean for craftsmanship?  People are always finding new ways to create and craftsmanship has always moved with the times.  Consider the craftsman using hand tools who later adjusted to power tools.   Isn’t the designer who creates the program that guides the machine also a craftsman?

Do you have handmade objects that you treasure because they are finely crafted and unique?  Suppose that same object had been made by a machine instead.  If you didn’t know, would you find it less beautiful or valuable?

We’ll always have skilled craftsmen.  And they will be using everything from hand tools to computers.

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