Around a year ago while I was tutoring a 3D printing workshop in San Juan, one of my 3D printers caught the attention of a couple of fine arts students. Interestingly, they took opposing attitudes towards the technology. One was amazed by the widening opportunities presented to him, while the other felt the need to make a compelling demand: “That will never replace us,” she said. To which I replied: “Who said it will?”
When people think of craft, we often take this nostalgic stance when it should be the opposite — an innovative approach to the relationship between materials and the process of making. With the advent of affordable digital fabrication technologies, the act of making and developing products has flourished, but so also has the false notion that computer-aided manufacturing is somehow of less worth than handcrafting.
It is important to highlight the fact that craft, even by definition, is not limited to objects made by hand. There is no one-liner that serves the purpose of defining what craft is. Common ground includes the relationship between the idea and the design process along with materials and manufacturing method used.
Using digital fabrication tools — either for prototyping or as a means to manufacture consumer-end products — saves time and money when compared to the time and resources used in intensive handwork. These could then be relocated somewhere else in the product developing stage, either to lower costs or to reinvest in conceptualization, design, branding, packaging, material research, or process. Digital fabrication meets both handcrafting and industrial manufacturing in the middle, allowing makers to indulge in low-cost customization.
It shouldn’t be an arms race. Digital fabrication isn’t looking to replace handcrafting nor does it undermine a product’s worth or quality. The capacity of both processes depend deeply on the particular knowledge, skill, and creativity of its user, often underestimated. When both are combined, the applications are endless.