Written for Four Seasons Magazine

Will the rise of digital making see the emergence of a cottage industry 2.0? Can bespoke objects made digitally ever attain the emotional and monetary value of hand craft?

Every September the Peak District, a wild and rugged blob of moorland national park situated between Sheffield and Manchester in northern England, plays host to the Wardlow Mires pottery festival. The festival consists largely of a tent in a muddy field in which ceramicists from across the UK and occasionally further afield (this year four Japanese potters made the trip) flog their wares to a modest but committed clientele and un by an acclaimed potter Geoff Fuller, also landlord at the unique, rustic Three Stags Heads Inn down the hill. Geoff’s wiley, eccentric character emanates from every corner of the pub, where you’re as likely to share the bar with a local hunting hawk as another human. The same can be said for his pottery, which is uniquely his, in character and foible as much as craft and skill.

Wardlow Mires is a far cry from the day-to-day world of digital making and manufacturing I have inhabited since 2013 when I founded Makerversity. Based at Somerset House, a 300 year old neoclassical masterpiece on the banks of the River Thames, Makerversity is a campus for new making businesses of all kinds, but with a particular emphasis on emerging technologies and practice. Founded as a result of the emergent digital manufacturing sector (for which the most common reference point is the 3D printer), Makerversity, now also in Amsterdam, provides space and access to digital manufacturing tools to over 300 synthetic biologists, creative technologists, product and wearables designers and more. But sadly no potters. Pottery and traditional crafts in general are not as easy to cater for in a city centre workspace as digital makers and garner a different type of interest.

In fact, many of the most interesting creators based at Makerversity are not only designing and making products using new tools and processes, but subvert and disrupt existing consumer-producer relationships. In particular, several are challenging supply chains from fashion to farming. The trend we’re seeing here is high value consumer products being produced locally and either designed or customised by the consumer, thus offering them an unprecedented level of control over the product they buy.

Unmade, Makerversity’s most notable success story to date, have rewritten software used to run industrial knitting machines. Customers are able to create unique knitwear designs in-store, where garments are also manufactured in a matter of minutes, thus completing the designing, making and purchasing process in one place. This exemplifies the rise of ‘distributed manufacturing’ as a viable method of creating unique and limited edition high-value items, having moved far beyond the early days of churning out pixelated plastic on 3D printers.

This fascinating development and undoubted seminal moment in the history of consumer products shifts the value (perceived or otherwise) of the ‘designer or ‘craftsperson’ in this process from that of ‘creator of objects’ to ‘creator of processes’. That is to say, the craft in Unmade’s business is largely in the incredible technical skill that goes into writing interactive, intuitive software that is able to be easily manipulated by the customer (or should we say designer?).

Even disregarding mass customisation, digital manufacturing is supporting the emergence of a new type of cottage industry. With machines no larger than a desktop printer now able to print, mill, rout and mould almost any product cost effectively and with immense precision. More and more small, local businesses are now creating and fulfilling small batches or one off objects. There are many experiments underway in this space from Fab City to Mayku, all exploring the role of digital in local, limited edition or bespoke production. The opportunity for small businesses to locally fulfill a community’s needs is now more than a pipe dream and one that can be executed with a precision, speed, cost and uniformity impossible in traditional craft production.

Less productive, more expensive, less reliable and less flexible than digital making, you could be forgiven for thinking the future of more traditional craftsmanship looks bleak, but perhaps not so. On the face of it, this new wave of distributed makers sound similar to the craft makers selling their wares in the Peak District. Arguably there’s a crucial difference, one that has significant implications that get to the very heart of why we value craft in the first place and what we’re really paying for when we buy beautiful objects.

Craftspeople, although making at a local level, are in many respects the antithesis of distributed manufacturing in action. Our Japanese purveyors at Wardlow Mires demonstrate this brilliantly; each pot they make is unique and as such desirable precisely because it was made by them, in their workshop in Japan. Geographical differences in the PH of the water used to make the pottery or the type of wood used to fire kilns would completely change the complexion of their work.

As such, they are producing objects with an indelible fingerprint, irreplicable by man or machine in any other context. However beautiful, a digitally produced object currently lacks the personality of something made in transient conditions by the imperfect human hand, even as a one off or small batch.

Achieving personality in an object isn’t the only challenge with digital manufacture. With consumers as customisers, infinite design possibilities often engender choice paralysis. How does one engage in a process where consumers are suddenly thrust into roles of designer and customer? Is the the moment of creative genius that brings an object into being something a consumer wants the responsibility of themselves? Isn’t the idea of buying a product that another, professionally trained and talented individual (or team) has done that hard work for you? This is a challenge still faced by arguably the longest standing mass customised product out there, Nike ID. The problem is, most people make horrible sneakers when left to their own devices.

Looking forward, it’s this challenge that is some of the most exciting and nuanced advances in distributed manufacturing and consumer input. The aforementioned Mayku’s first product is a domestic scale forming tool that plugs into a home vacuum cleaner, allowing users to use suction to create custom moulds, used in turn to cast objects. This mechanised but very personal crafting tool celebrates the power of distributed manufacturing alongside the personality of traditional processes such as casting - no two objects are ever cast quite the same. Interestingly, Unmade have been working with this challenge too, but with a different bent. Customers are now able to manipulate design templates created by leading fashion designers rather than creating their own from scratch, striking that sweet-spot between the credibility and desirability of renowned designers and the choice and individualism of customisable products.

The coming decade is sure to see a continued advancement in the nuance and subtlety through which consumers contribute to the creation of products. As user experience and material quality improves we’re sure to see a focus on how character, personality and digital manufacturing can become more than the sum of their parts. This might well not just be consumer facing either. It’s just as exciting to see what a master craftsman can do by incorporating digital making into their processes as it is to explore the next versions of consumer customisation. After all, the irreplicable beauty of a crafted object coupled with the input of time and learned expertise is what craft is all about, and if that time and learned expertise expands to new tools and processes it’s an interesting prospect. Whatever the tools, the expertise that underpins craft will still be as valuable in 20 years as it is today, and that’s why many craftspeople will continue to carve a niche in the increasingly digitised world of consumer products, however imperfect or undistributed they remain.