• "The characteristic grid-like simplicity of the view, the absence of barriers… a landscape where nothing officially exists, absolutely anything becomes thinkable, and may consequently happen… — that’s Reyner Banham describing deserts, though I like to imagine he was looking at a spreadsheet." Rod's component of By Hand & By Brain is just wonderful.
  • "Having to learn how to make something ‘the long way’ helps you to understand how to manipulate materials at a fundamental level. It means that you can become fluent. The ability to articulate your thoughts through and with matter, rather than just make it into a shape you have thought of, means that you are more likely to find innovative or creative ways to exploit both materials and machinery. This is true whether you are talking about traditional craft techniques or more contemporary (digital) ways of making: I don’t think you can avoid the notion that time and effort are the only way to get good at something. Using digital technology as a way to shortcut the temporal aspects of craftsmanship is effectively relegating these sources of immense creative potential to the category of ‘labour saving devices’. I am really looking forward to a time where we can fully appreciate the potential for modern digital craftsmanship, by which I mean the skilful manipulation of digital systems as ‘matter’, rather than as express facilitators of shiny objectness." yes-yes-yes-yes.
  • "My interest in materials… is like my interest in tools. What can be made with this? What can this do that other materials cannot? Materials with special properties are cool because they can open new possibilities in manufacturing, design, or even behavior. Additionally, they’re such an amazing cultural artifact. Where and how something gets made says so much about us as people, as a species, even. In a beautiful fabric, the simplest thing can be magic."

I’ve been making a lot of things recently, both at work and at home. And as a result, I’ve been having to buy tools.

Not a lot, but a steady trickle: discovering I need one of these, or one of those. A box of screws or bolts here; some wire there; a different kind of this to fit a particular need.

I’m trying to artificially acquire odds and ends.

This is hard. What, I think, I’ve been needing is a workshop.

But you can’t buy a workshop. A workshop isn’t a set of tools in a room.

It’s everything else, as well: offcuts; spares; old bits of wood; weird bits of plastic with strange holes in; broken things with one useful part to be cannibalised; hand-made jigs that fit particular things.

There is no shelf in B&Q or Maplin marked “this, that, and the other“, and yet that – more than anything else – is what I’ve been needing recently.

You can’t buy leftovers, spares, or “just the right thing”.

And given that, I think a workshop isn’t measured in the volume of tools it contains, the number of shelves, or the lengths of its benches.

I think it’s measured as a duration. A one-year workshop. A five-year workshop. A ten-year workshop.

Ten years of making things, and ten years of all the entropy that goes along with that: spares, duplicates, improved versions of things, swarf, offcuts, and thingummys.

When you view it like that, it’s no wonder I’m always finding new things I’ll require. I’ve only got a baby workshop (and let’s face it, the tools are in a closet and I’m drilling and sawing things on my dining room table – it’s hardly a workshop, is it?)

But babies grow up.

And it’s a reminder why, when I visit my parents, I can almost always find the bits and bobs I need, or the right tool for a job, or a part I didn’t even know the name of – because there’s a thirty-year workshop waiting for me.

Bored of “3D Printers”

12 September 2011

I’m really bored of the term “3D printer”.

It’s begun to make me squirm when I hear it. For many such devices, it’s a reasonable explanation of the process – layers of extruded material “printed”, a layer at time, building an object up from nothing.

My problem is with the “3D” part of it. Or rather: the idea that a “3D printer” prints… 3Ds? I read an article explaining the technology in a mainstream newspaper; it explained that at the end of the process, you’d remove your “3D artefact” from the machine.

Or, you know, object. Thing. Or even call it by the name of what you’ve printed: “when the printer finished, I removed my ashtray/cog/bottle opener/toy.”

I’ve just finished Charlie Stross’ Rule 34, which was fun. One of my favourite pieces of futurethinking in it was his exploration of the domestication of “fabbers”. They’re not things owned only by geeks and early adopters; Stross’ fabbers are bought in John Lewis, made by mainstream companies. Of course, like Nespresso machines or inkjet printers, they’re artificially hobbled to only use ‘official’ feedstock, and perhaps even to not make certain plans (ie, forcing you into a “thing store” to download official plans). So the opportunity for hackers are to take the off-the-shelf machines and rewire them to use illicit feedstock, to make dangerous things. But the fabber is very much just like a coffee machine in this universe, and I liked some of his explorations of what it was like to have an off-the-shelf object printer in the house.

A name like “object printer” or “thing printer” feels so much more honest and less clumsy. And: eventually we’re going to get over the magic of the “3D” part of the printing, and instead just focus on the variety of things we can get out, the varieties of materials we can print in, the affordability of such devices. The 3Dness will be taken as given.

(If you pushed me, and I had to coin a neologism, though, I’d choose artefactory.)


08 October 2008

There’s some interesting discussion around Matt Jones’ post over at Schulze & Webb‘s Pulse Laser, where he considers what happens when you apply Kevin Kelly’s ideas around “new economics of scale” for craftsmen and artists to products.

Matt writes:

I joked with Matt and Jack that they should put the price tag of producing a prototype out there, and see who wanted one – or perhaps the price of a short-run of limited edition Olinda, which would reduce it perhaps from four figures a piece to three… Or perhaps the next generation of Olinda, with their input?

There’s some interesting discussion in the comments on the post around whether fans would be interested in constructing or assembling products they’re fans of: Chris Hand comments that

…it’s the soldering and assembly that’s the stumbling block for most who want to [look into limited runs]…

I really like the idea of products having fans. It’s often the early adopters of new products who convince their friends (who often represent a more traditional market) to make the leap. Those thousand “true fans” have the potential to be the people who take the product to a wider audience.

“Fans” act as an intermediate layer between the product and a mass market: they evangelise and amplify it. If you want to make a pun out of it, you could call them middle fan-agement. They take a product and enthuse about it to a wider audience; crowdsourced marketing, if you like.

But what if you went a step further – what if you called upon your fans to actually build the product, in the kind of short runs Jones hints at?

Imagine, for my purposes, a product along the lines of Schulze and Webb’s Olinda, but perhaps in a slightly cheaper price bracket – low three figures at most. The device is still reasonably expensive; however, it has enough fans to easily justify a short run. Rather than consuming S&W’s valuable time with soldering, the early adopters – the fans – buy low volumes of kits. More than one kit per fan – ideally, we’d want people to purchase around five. There are 1000 units of the product, but we only need 200 people to assemble them. Maybe even fewer than that, if somebody’s particularly talented or enthusiastic. There’s no burn-out, and the expense is much more reasonable: everybody’s only making five devices, rather than a thousand.

To continue with the puns, we could call this fanufacture.

Your fans manufacture five kits, and resell four, keeping one for themselves. Of course, they’ve already paid for the kits (much like a Big Issue vendor buys all his magazines up front before he resells them), so S&W are in pocket, and sales is being performed by someone already enthusiastic about the product.

And you don’t have to sell – you could give them away, to parents, or to friends, to seed the network of a social product with keen, happy users, and at the top of the network, a layer of fans.

There are obvious catches – quality control is a screamingly obvious one. But it’s always amazing how far fans will go for a product they like. Look at the community around Moo‘s printed products, for instance: full of enthusiastic fans, ready to not only spend more money, but evangelise about the product to friends and family.

Fans don’t just exist as the core audience you need to make a product successful on any terms; they could also act as a gateway to widespread, mass-market success, and embracing their skills and enthusiasm to outsource tasks you might not otherwise have the time or budget to perform seems like a logical evolution of the fandom Matt describes around products.