Icons, 3b, 8c, 21e, approximately 4 in. (10cm) in diameter, polyamide (similar to nylon), printed on a three-dimensional prototype machine, 2007; by Peter Jansen, Nijmegen, Netherlands.
|As a field, we are particularly good at time travel, but really only in one direction. We can, and should, start to look forward-further and more often than we do.
Many potters define their work by how it differs from industrially made work. For example, the industrial pot is seen as flawless, boring, identical, sterile, cheap, safe and lacking a personal connection to the user. This critical definition goes back to William Morris’ 19th-century attack on industrialization and his subsequent championing of craft. Today, the image of a reclusive potter, devoted to his craft and untainted by machinery and the modern world, seems a piece of history. Nothing is static and isolated.
The fields of art, craft and design will be permanently changed by rapid advances in technology and attitudes, a revolution that is already happening in manufacturing. The traditional factory, the factory that churned out Henry Ford’s Model T, is gone. A new factory is coming, and, in certain cases, it’s already here.
In some areas, we’ve begun to move from mass-production to mass-customization. For example, online you can order a pair of Adidas, Nike, Keds or Vans shoes and pick the colors of the sole, the sides, the tongue, the stripes. They are one-of-a-kind. This is now possible not because of worker exploitation but because of technology; machines today are smart and nimble enough to allow companies to offer these options. And it’s not just shoes. Henry Ford’s Model T came in one color-black. The Mini Cooper can be purchased on a website where a customer can customize the paint job with racing stripes of a never-ending combination of colors. The customer ends up with a truly unique car-straight from the factory. This customization goes well beyond just picking or changing the surface of an existing object. Several companies are helping to democratize the production of the object itself. Most notable is shapeways.com. Shapeways is a factory in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, whose doors are open to the world, allowing free use of a basic and user-friendly software for designing three-dimensional objects. Currently, the company offers 3-D printing of designs in three different types of plastics, and soon will be offering objects in titanium. You can design the object from the ground up or you can use a virtual object they have in their library as a starting point. Many of these have been uploaded by other customers/users and are shared on the site (much like we share recipes). As a potter, I couldn’t help but notice a design on Shapeways of a fruit bowl that is offered as a starting point for users. They encourage the customer to change the shape by altering the profile and size, and you can add text in a way that wraps around the rim of the bowl (see image at left).
This basic bowl design, available on the Shapeways website, can be modified by customers to alter the size and shape of the form, as well as add text to appear on the rim. While it is not available in ceramic (yet), it is significant for makers of useful objects to consider what it might mean that customers could be this involved in the designing of objects they purchase for daily use.
Although Shapeways is not able to print objects directly out of ceramic materials, the significance of their services is an example of a fundamental change in manufacturing. If you have access to the web, you can design and produce an object with a production run of one, for a price that is based on the time to build. You know the price in advance after each alteration you make to a generic model or to your own model. The fact that users can create their own personalized fruit bowls out of plastic is not a threat to the livelihood of any potter, but it certainly is a symbol of how objects that fill our lives may be created in the future. As makers, we have all seen, used, or heard stories of these new technologies. Rapid prototyping is the printing of three-dimensional objects. It’s been going on for years, and much of it sounds like it belongs to the realm of science fiction. ACTech, a manufacturing company in Detroit, for instance, uses a digital file to print the actual molds for the direct casting of engine blocks-with no prototype necessary. Many artists, craftspeople and designers have begun using these tools for greater efficiency and speed, but that isn’t the revolution. The revolution is that factories are using, and will increasingly use, technologies like this to make finished objects, not just prototypes [see "The Printed Pot"]. What does all this new technology of design and production mean? Well, it means that the industrially made, utilitarian object may soon be designed to be individual, personal and one-of-a-kind, and perhaps even designed by the user or a group of users. A utopian view is that manufacturing centers will be located closer to the users, will buy and use local supplies rather than imports, will be green and thrive on regional diversity. Lower production costs and minimal inventory would encourage manufacturers to be innovative and take risks. This speculation on the evolution of industrial production may turn out to be accurate or flat-out wrong. If we as makers define our pots, and our role in society, against the objects of industry, where does that leave us on the eve of industry’s big change? Art, craft and design will all be affected, maybe even transformed. We need to look forward, toward the future. Where and how are things changing? Do we oppose or help this change? Nudge it in a particular direction? As a field, we are particularly good at time travel, but really only in one direction. I say Song dynasty, and every potter can imagine the pots. We can, and should, start to look forward-further and more often than we do. How will a manufacturing system so radically different from the one we know change how we understand the objects that we make by hand? Making things by hand is as old as our species; if our tools become so powerful and capable on their own, where does that leave us? The purpose of this article is not to signal the end of the handmade, rather it is to point out that factories may begin to use some of the unique characteristics of the craft disciplines. As a maker, I feel this is an opportunity for me to take stock of our field and recognize what we do so well-and imagine ways that we can be involved with these coming changes earlier rather than later. the author Andy Brayman makes pots and operates The Matter Factory (www.matterfactory.com
) and Easy Ceramic Decals (www.easyceramicdecals.com
) in Kansas City, Kansas.
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