Can DigiFab and Manual Craftsmanship Co-Exist?

3D Printing & Imaging Craft & Design
Can DigiFab and Manual Craftsmanship Co-Exist?

Among MAKE readers, we’re nearly unanimous in agreeing that the rise of digital fabrication is a complete game-changer for crafters, hackers, and tinkerers of all stripes. Laser cutters, CNC mills, and 3D printers have altered the way we think about design, and raised the bar for quality and precision in our work. I’m a passionate adopter of these technologies, but am also wary of the cultural shift they represent as they become more ubiquitous.

I was talking to a friend about this recently, voicing my disappointment in so many talented colleagues of ours who stay strictly within software, afraid to pick up tools with which they could alternatively realize their creations. His response surprised me: “I’m more comfortable with a Wacom and Photoshop. I grew up with computers and I can’t imagine creating with anything else. I think digital fabrication is the future and I want to be a part of it.”

What are the dangers in relying only on digital fabrication? What are its limitations? It’s certainly another powerful tool in the toolbox, but then something that’s laser cut or 3d printed has a certain type of look (industry shorthand to this effect has already developed amongst design firms.) Also, technologies like this are still expensive and can’t be easily used “on the job”. For example, you can make an enclosure for your Arduino project, but I challenge you to rapid prototype an entire house. I’m not a Luddite, but there’s something seemingly dangerous in not learning basic manual craftsmanship. Working with materials physically awakens certain creative techniques that can’t exist with a Wacom and stylus. The comparison is almost one of analog versus digital.

Digital fabrication relies on discrete iterations. It’s made or it’s not made, it’s changed or it’s not changed. Program the machine, wait for the prototype to come out. You don’t like it? Throw it away and start again. Desgning something with digifab from start to finish without touching a standard tool to it is certainly possible but this isn’t true in every case. Part of the danger in this assumption is in the need for further assemblage. My friend may have the CAD skills to design something like Makerbot’s turtle shell racer, but he’d still need the knowledge to put those parts together into a cohesive product once they’re printed.

Compare this to a wood bowl you’re turning on a lathe. You control the exact amount of pressure and time that you press your chisel to it. You even choose the chisel and you sharpen it yourself. How the grain of the wood responds to your touch informs your design decisions in real time. It’s a more intimate interaction, and informs the final product.

On the other hand, being a bit of a wood butcher myself, I know it takes hours and hours, years even, of practice to make products by hand that also look professional. Did I do myself a disservice by spending so much time with drills and saws, and not enough with Rhino and Illustrator? Woodworker and designer Ben Light says, “The old and new can live together quite beautifully. Skill, technique, and craftsmanship will always rise to the top whether it be digital or analog, but a comfort level or proficiency in one area shouldn’t scare you off of the other.”

Should we forge ahead with our Makerbots and Zings, never looking back? Or should we stick with old reliable tools, lest we become too advanced and lose our way in light of some catastrophe, like the ancient Minoans or users of the Template Construct in Warhammer 40000? I’m hedging myself and will remain pleased with a mix of both, but I’m more curious about what you think. Let’s hear it in the comments.


30 thoughts on “Can DigiFab and Manual Craftsmanship Co-Exist?

  1. RonB says:

    Some years back, I worked in a timber frame shop. They designed and built custom timber structures, both residential and commercial. They used CNC equipment to perform the majority of machining on the timbers, but some of the more intricate finishing work was done by hand.
    This illustrates a nice marriage between traditional and contemporary methods.

    1. Anonymous says:

      I had a similar experience. 

      I did CAD work for a company that built high end Irish pubs. All the cabinet makers could build the bars by hand, but the ones that understood what the CNC machine could do for them could build a lot faster. There was only one guy who could do his own CAD work for the CNC, but the other guys would either come to me for repetitive parts they didn’t want to cut or the designers would have had me draw a custom piece that they wanted made. 

  2. Sam Ley says:

    I built a CNC router (fairly large, 4’x4′) based on the Joe’s Hybrid designs a few years ago. I, and everyone around me, had these visions of just programming things in and having stuff just “pop out” like a loud mechanized replicator. While in some ways this is close to true, I was surprised at the amount of traditional building techniques I still had to employ.

    A good example is when I built this set of speakers:

    I blasted the enclosures out on the CNC in no time, including rabbeted joints and all the recesses for the speaker baffle. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t need to know how to glue up a cabinet full of braces so that it comes together straight the first time, instead of skewed. No matter how precise your machine is there will still be tolerances, and traditional woodworking glue-up skills are necessary.

    Likewise, once they were glued up, I spent probably 30-40 person-hours sanding, spraying primer, sanding more, spraying more primer, sanding more, laying down a guide coat of a contrasting primer color, sanding more, gluing in connectors, sanding more, spraying 3 coats of single-stage, two part urethane, polishing by hand, etc. When people here that I “made it with my CNC”, they don’t realize that the CNC part took about 2 hours, less than 5% of the total time involved in the project.

    My CNC is just another valuable tool in my woodworking arsenal. It isn’t a replicator, any more than a table saw or power drill is a replicator, but it opens doors to manufacturing and precision that I couldn’t easily attain before.

    And as a final point, CNC in small shops has revitalized an interest in traditional joinery – techniques that gave way to pocket-screws and dowel pins in recent years, such as locking miters, curved dovetails, tabbed mortises, etc., are now on the comeback. The original complaint that they were painstaking to make is now less of an issue – you can machine a very slick locking mitre or curved butterfly joint with a simple CNC router – giving you the elegance and effectiveness of traditional joinery, with the speed of modern manufacturing.

  3. Ryan Turner says:

    I think everyone knows the answer: there is a place for both.
    I personally believe that using a machine without at least an understanding of how the process would be done in traditional methods is a disservice, but lets be honest here – if you are clueless on how to use a manual milling machine you are going to be useless if not dangerous with a cnc mill.  The easier tools (laser/3d printer) might not be hard to use but their capabilities are far more limited.
    I think you will find that those who ignore traditional methods tend to do work more typical of the arts and crafts.  Lasers and 3d printers are cool but the type of work the produce is generally decorative in nature.  Anyone serious will pick up manual techniques regardless of whether or not they are actively trying to learn them.
    Things that can be made using computerized tools are a subset of things that can be made by hand and as people start trying to push limits they will need to learn.

    1. Michael Colombo says:

      “I think you will find that those who ignore traditional methods tend to do work more typical of the arts and crafts.” – That’s an interesting point. Sometimes you have to get your hands dirty to figure out how something works before replicating or improving upon it, even if it’s with digital methods.

  4. Anonymous says:

    My first reaction to this was “How bloddy dumb? Of Course they can co-exist. They have to.”
    Then I read a bit further and realized how a software creator might think otherwise.
    A bit of self-reflection and I realized that I used to be one of those software creators who thought we could make everything.  Heck, I was one of the garage virtual reality makers in the early 90s talking about making totally immersive worlds indistinguishable from reality…. well, I was in the discussions but was often the one saying ‘not quite’.  These days cgi is quite improved from the days of REND386 and The Last Starfighter (which were almost a decade apart anyway).  My cell phone does better real time animation than our CRAY XMP did for TLS at a frame a minute (best rate).  Back in high school I was on the college prep track, looking down at those going to tech schools or otherwise. Then I realized the first kid from school to be a millionaire was the one who ran a lawn care biz.

    I’ve been a software geek for 30+years and early on eschewed most mechanical activities. I did do a good bit of model making, handyman type activities and things that would now show up on, but for the most part I have been a software guy. I learned about 3d printing doing a contract job for a startup called 3DSystems in 1987. They had this awesome product-to-be that would draw on liquid plastic and make real objects.  Couple decades later I saw the Makerbot at a Maker Faire and knew I had to have one (#401).  But those machines require getting in and wrenching to make them.  My Epilog Helix 40w laser crapped out on me last week. Apparently the motherboard died.  I’m 4000 miles from the factory and there are NO service techs.  Swapping the board was pretty trivial and the laser fires again… but if I was a total sw geek I;d be screwed…. calling friends to come fix it.

    A couple years ago, I decided I wanted to get into 21st century fab lab tech – laser cutters, shopbots, 3d printers, arduinos, etc.  The local adult school (simi valley, ca) had a variety of classes including CNC programming and welding. I signed up for both (6mo wait on welding).  The CNC class required you to start off with manual tech – so you had a better feel for what machines and techniques could/could not do.  I had a great time going through the basic machinist class, getting oily, washing metal swarf’d clothing separately, and really making some things…. some even useful!  I found a great enjoyment in making things by hand and realized how much modern tech relies on these old basics.

    Now I am on Maui, starting a Makerspace. Classic Made By Hand techniques are essential part of what makers do.  Sure there is web programming, 3d modeling/printing, etc.  but basic wrenching, cutting, bending are the foundation – and daily use skills.  
    There’s an old saying “when all you have is photoshop, everything starts to look like a picture”…
    oh wait thats supposed to be “Hammer” and “Nail”.

  5. Voik Nallen says:

    What effect has the inkjet/laser printer had on your handwriting?

    1. Julian Leland says:

      Spot on.

      Also, a slightly different but related experience. I spend a fair amount of time in my college’s machine shops, which are (unfortunately) CNC-free. However, even using manual machine tools, I still find myself asking the machinist how to use chisels and files to do some work – seriously back to traditional methods.

  6. Matt Middleton says:

    I think this is a false binary – it doesn’t have to be one or the other.  Certainly, some people will be more comfortable in one world or the other, but there are a lot of people who will want to straddle both worlds.

  7. Eric Hart says:

    I feel digital fabrication adds on to manual craftsmanship, but can never really place it. I build props for theatre, so I’m coming from a bit of a different perspective. 

    Working with your hands, even if it is on sophisticated machines, teaches you a lot about the properties of materials, what they are capable of, and how they can go together. Digital fabrication tools feel like another part of the process, rather than a replacement. For instance, if I am building something and I require a certain part of a certain shape, I can look through a hardware catalog to see if something already exists, try to fashion something by hand, or make it on a CNC machine or 3D printer. I still have to do all the assembly.

    Certain materials and methods still can’t be accomplished through digital fabrication, at least not without expensive or specialized machines. Say I want to steam and bend a wooden beam to make a curved piece. This is much stronger than cutting a curved piece out of a large piece of wood. It’s the same with forging a blade in iron; the act of folding and hammering strengthens the iron in one direction that make it ideal for a blade. A cast iron piece or a piece of iron which has been milled to a blade shape will be substantially weaker.

    Digital fabrication also requires large amounts of clean raw materials. If I want to build a piece of furniture with a CNC router, I need large sheets of plywood or MDF. If I build it by hand, I could use recycled or found pieces, or work from smaller chunks of material left over from other projects. I can plan around the defects or cut the pieces out so as to highlight the grain. A CNC machine just blindly plows through whatever material you place in its bed. In some cases, I can work faster than the CNC; if I only need a square of plywood, I can make a few cuts and be done with it, rather than drafting something up, prepping the CNC machine, and then waiting for it to run. And as you say in the article, if you simply want to modify something, you have to draft and print a new piece, and toss the old one.

    I don’t mean to denigrate digital fabrication. I think for certain applications, it’s great. If you are making prototypes to test a design, and you can do that on the 3D printer, great. Especially if it’s meant to be built by others using only your computer drafting file, than really, you’re developing the file itself, rather than an actual finished project. But using only 3D printers or CNC machines only permits you to make things that the machines are capable of; learning to work with your hands gives you the possibility to make anything. Tools and machines make life easier, but chaining yourself to only one or a few types of machines makes you dependent on them, and if, for whatever reason, those become unavailable, you are screwed. When you think of the long global supply chains that are required for digital fabrication–the coltan in the electrical components, the copper in the wiring, the petroleum-based plastics in both the construction and to fabricate things, the PCB boards assembled in China, etc.–you realize how energy-intensive these machines are.

  8. Anonymous says:

    There are certain things you can make only using some sort of fabbish things, but they tend to be pretty dull. Most interesting (at least to me) things are much easier and cheaper to build with a combination of manual and automatic techniques. I just recently built a grow lamp that I think would’ve taken twice as long, and many time more money, if I refused to use traditional techniques.

  9. Christian Restifo says:

    Just two things I’ll add to the excellent comments here:

    First, it’s the right tool for the right job. In some cases, digital fabrication may be better; in others, hand fabrication.

    Second, one thing that hand fabrication will give you that digital cannot it is a feel for assembly. I’m talking about things like how/where to join two parts, how much tolerance to give for adjustment during assembly, where to gusset, where to stiffen joints, where to place holes, etc. I’ve quickly printed out some items that I thought were neat, but when I went to put them together, it was apparent the designer didn’t take into consideration the assembly process. This is not to denigrate the designer; it was just that the person hadn’t thought about it in detail. We’re talking hole locations/tolerances that make assembling pieces a maddeningly difficult process. Someone who’s had experience in cutting/drilling/screwing/nailing/bolting by hand would have seen these things and also known that others would have different tolerances on their machines that need to be accounted for. (For example, I printed out a bearing that was difficult to assemble when putting in the skate bearings/bolts because it was impossible to get straight/square access to both the nut and bolt. Sure, they looked good on the 3D drawing, but 3D drawing programs don’t say, “Hey! You can’t get that in here in the real world.”)

    I’m basically talking about design for manufacturing, and IMHO, it’s one of those things you can only really understand by assembling/manually building items. Once you understand that, you can *really* unlock the power of digital fabrication.

  10. Joshua Kopel says:

    It seems pretty clear to me that hand-work methods are not going away anytime soon. Particularly for one off manufacture.

    Another thing to think about is what do you do when something goes wrong? In a digital world you might just say “pitch it and make a new one”, but until/unless you can recycle the materials that is incredibly expensive and wasteful. If you have the hand skills to work alongside your digital techniques you can make something work even if your programming was a little off.

    1. Michael Colombo says:

      This is very true…Sometimes a digitally fabbed piece might not quite fit, and some sanding/carving will make it work. Versatility is key.

  11. Informatio Killmaster says:

    “I challenge you to rapid prototype an entire house.”
    Challenge accepted:
    and again:

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In addition to being an online editor for MAKE Magazine, Michael Colombo works in fabrication, electronics, sound design, music production and performance (Yes. All that.) In the past he has also been a childrens' educator and entertainer, and holds a Masters degree from NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program.

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