The dumbing down of making things

Despite the title of this post and the picture below, this is not an essay against 3D Printing. Nor is it an essay in favour of the technology. The merits and shortcomings of 3D Printing have been discussed ad nauseum in the hobby, and I’m not rehashing those debates here.

MakerBot photo MakerBot_zps96549c6f.jpg

This week I attended a two-day technology conference in Toronto, at which one of the keynote speakers enthused about 3D Printing. The speaker – a long-time observer of the technology sector – argued that 3D Printing hailed the coming of the third industrial revolution, combining the physical industrial revolution launched by the spinning jenny in the 18th Century with the digital industrial revolution ushered in by the personal computer in the 1980s.

SpinningJenny photo SpinningJenny_zps67d50bcc.jpg

Apple IIc photo PersonalComputer_zps609b0eb9.jpg

While the speaker may have a point – only the test of time will determine that – I was appalled at how he not only ignored the value of craftsmanship but actually dismissed it when questioned about it later.

During his presentation, the speaker related a story from his childhood about working with his grandfather to build an engine (the gasoline-powered kind, not a locomotive). He made a mistake while measuring a part to be machined and ruined the piece. His take-away from this? “Measuring is hard” and somehow – magically, I suppose – 3D printing eliminates the need to know how to measure.

Yeah, I know: “Seriously?”

I followed up on this in a later Q&A session. As an (admittedly novice) owner of a Sherline Mill, I argued that measuring is actually relatively easy. It’s a mechanical skill that requires little more than the ability to read a calliper and the patience to double-check plans and measurements.

By extension, all physical aspects of making things – whether machining, wood working, model building or something else – are relatively simple skills that involve observation, accuracy and patience. (The key word here is “relatively”.) As such, the physical acts can be performed by a computer-driven machine – whether it’s a lathe, a mill, or a 3D printer. In fact, they can probably be performed better by such computer-driven devices than by a human because accuracy and patience is something computers are really good at.

The real talent is in understanding how to design the object in the first place – an understanding that can only be gained through a combination of education, apprenticeship and experience. It’s easy to use a fly cutter in a mill to remove material from the surface of a piece of metal. It’s easy to press the “Make” icon on a computer screen to start the 3D Printing process. It’s hard to know – to really understand – whether the material you’ve chosen for your design is the best material, and how much you can push that material’s properties before it will no longer be able to perform the function you’re asking of it.

3D Printing gives us a new means of production, but it’s worse than useless without the knowledge imparted by the process of training and experience – in other words, by craftsmanship.

“Worse than useless” is a strong statement, but here are a couple of examples of why I feel this is a fair assessment:

I could use a 3D Printer to fabricate a hammer. But unless I understand the stresses acting on a hammer when I pound a nail, my 3D Printed hammer could shatter. The shattered head could rebound and crack me in the temple. At an extreme, it could kill me.

I could use a 3D Printer to fabricate a coffee mug. But unless I understand the nature of the material I use, and the limitations of the current technology, I could create a mug that could be impossible to properly clean. (For example, current 3D Printers leave small ridges that could encourage bacteria growth.) In time, my mug could harbour enough bacteria to make me seriously ill, or even kill me.

The visionary’s response to the role of craftsmanship was dismissive. “Computers will do all that” was essentially his verdict. And that disturbs me because ultimately, computers are programmed to serve. If we press the “Make” button, a computer might be programmed to say “Hey – are you sure? Because this hammer looks kind of dodgy to me”. But in the end, it’ll 3D Print my poorly-designed Hammer O’ Death.

Craftsmen, on the other hand, can – and if they’re trusted for their experience, will – dig in their heels, explain why the design is a failure, and refuse to produce it. And the greater their expertise, the harder they will defend that position.

The problem arises when the traditional craftsman is eliminated from the production process, which is essentially what the conference keynote speaker suggests is going to happen (although he did not put it in those terms). If, by using a 3D Printer, we eliminate the person who knows about designing and making hammers or coffee mugs, then we have to step into that role ourselves.

I would feel more positive about the future of 3D Printing as a catalyst for the next industrial revolution – with all the benefits that implies – if those considered to be authorities on the technology presented it for what it really is: Namely, another dumb tool in our tool kit.

Knowledge and talent do not manifest at the touch of a button – any more than they manifest when one grabs a hammer. They are hard to acquire – and people need to continue to recognize and value that.

3D Printing is already having an effect on our hobby and I’m certain it will continue to do so, especially as the technology improves. But I hope hobbyists don’t let their enthusiasm for this relatively new and novel technology blind them to the importance of the pursuit and mastery of the skills of the craftsman in creating products that are of lasting value.

Anybody can 3D Print junk. That’s easy. Learning to use this tool as a craftsman will be hard. Don’t let the experts try to tell you otherwise.

Fortunately, I think as a group we hobbyists have an advantage over the general population – including the computer-savvy generation of Digital Natives who will naturally turn to 3D Printing and other such technologies when they want to “make things”. That’s because we are already “makers”:

We have learned about things like material properties and good fabrication practices – through clinics, clubs, round-robin layout-building groups, publications, good old fashioned trial and error and, more recently, online forums, blogs, videos and groups.

And because our models are intended to run on our layouts, we understand the importance of fabrication skills such as the ability to accurately measure. We know that these are not skills to walk away from because they are “too hard”, but rather skills to run towards – to master so that we may enjoy the products of this creative outlet.

Equally importantly, we have developed an appreciation and respect for those who know these things, and share them with those who don’t.

So, my fellow craftsman: Well done! Let us not think of technology in terms of how it can provide us with shortcuts. Instead, let’s continue to critically assess new technologies, tools and techniques, even as we explore their potential to make our hobby even more rewarding.

17 thoughts on “The dumbing down of making things

  1. “all physical aspects of making things are relatively simple skills that involve observation, accuracy and patience”

    Not surprisingly, I agree with this. Big complicated projects are made up of lots of smaller, simpler projects. Indeed, if that were not the case, it would be impossible to program a machine to make things.

    The core skill will still be, as you say, in the design, and that requires a lot of experience and knowledge. It opens up a world of opportunities for the production of details and even complete models, but the final results will still be dependent on the skill of the pattern maker. That skill may change over time to become more focused on CAD, than making things, but ultimately, if a designer has never put together a final object, I suspect that there will be some disappointed customers out there.

    What will be taken away is the joy of using one’s hands to make something, and that is what I want to get out of my hobby. The fact that the parts of a kit were made by a 3D model printed directly, of cast from a 3D printing, from etching, or carved out of a deer’s antlers using a pen-knife is immaterial to me, providing the patterns are well made, durable and accurate.

    I don’t, ultimately, want the same RTR models as everyone else, though, so I am still looking to modify existing models and kits and to build from scratch, to produce my own unique models. My personal concern is that the individuality of craftsmanship – the “warmth” that comes from a true understanding (if not love) of a subject – dies out, as we become a world of printers and not creators/designers.

    Anyway, I am rambling. I think 3D has a place in things: the approach taken by Jim King at Smokey Mountain Model Works ( is an excellent example of good use of this technology. I just hope that indiscriminate use of 3D printing doesn’t replace everything else…

  2. Hi Trevor;

    I suspect a lot of what is revolutionary in 3D printing is that it is more scalable for small production. Keeping in mind that most commercial products we buy are made from tooling that was almost certainly produced by machines from CAD files rather than a skilled machinist with a hand mill or files.The craftsman in this case is sitting behind the computer running the 3D CAD software. I have heard of many disappointed people who paid a 3D CAD expert for a design which in the end could not be printed, there-in lies the expertese.

    BTW. if you look up emachineshop you will find a company doing everything from milling to etching to 3D printing from your design. They will even provide the software! So there are options besides the 3D printing available to those with the right computer skills.

  3. Gentlemen:

    I agree with everything you say – good comments, all. And I think 3D Printing will become even more useful as the resolution improves and the cost comes down. But the merits and shortcomings of the technology have been well-covered in other hobby forums.

    What I really wanted to share was my reaction to this keynote speaker (a person who is not a craftsman, although he is a member of the creative class) and the readiness with which he dismissed the usefulness of what many of us in the hobby value: Namely, the importance of craftsmanship. I think he’s dead wrong when he says “measuring is hard” and suggests that thanks to 3D Printing, Makers will be able to avoid having to learn to measure or other hard stuff because a computer will do that for them.

    If that’s the prevailing attitude of the big thinkers in the ICT sector then I think we have a head start on non-hobbyists when it comes to getting the most out of new fabrication technologies such as 3D Printing. Not because we know more about 3D Printing – everybody’s starting from the same point of ignorance. Rather, because we hobbyists have:

    – a better understanding of what we don’t know when it comes to using such a fabrication technology (eg: material strengths and flexibility);
    – a better understanding of how to address the things we don’t know: in other words, how to learn; and
    – a better understanding that figuring it out is hard work – but worth the effort


  4. My thoughts on 3D printing are that it will become a new tool for craftsman or allow a new type of craftsman to emerge but certainly won’t replace them. As a technology oriented guy (software engineer) the prospects of 3D printing really make me excited, especially in the context of modeling.

    However that doesn’t mean I can forget everything I’ve learned, in fact I’d say the opposite. 3D printing may help me produce things in higher quantities easier, but I still need to design and build a prototype in the physical world before I can ever expect to print it.

    • Hi Matt:

      Thanks for the thoughts – and thanks for joining the conversation.

      I assume the need to build a prototype in the physical world is to confirm that the printed product will perform as expected? And I assume that the prototype could be printed. But those assumptions don’t change your core thought – that we can’t forget what we’ve already learned. New technologies aren’t a substitution for knowledge – no matter what the keynote speakers say…


  5. I agree with what has been written. That said, a friend who owns a tool and die business is afraid that it will come to an end as he can no longer hire employees who have math skills to program the computer to perform the machining functions. He even created a math class for potential hires but they all left for other jobs rather than learn skills to be operators. In the end the 3D printers could have the same problems.

    • Hi Bill:
      My thoughts exactly. A 3D Printer in the hands of someone without the training will have the same problems.

  6. 3D is a solution to developing detail parts for minority scales like S and O. A single design file can be scaled for both group of modelers.
    It is not a cheap process if you are going to brass castings as a final form. It is cheaper than making a die for injection molded parts.
    As a pattern maker, 3D allows the designer to create parts with detail features not possible using traditional methods.


  7. Trevor,
    Good thoughts. You’ve covered aspects of the subject that I’ve overlooked and, frankly, never considered to begin with.

    I spent nearly thirty years developing my painting technique in watercolor. The finest sable paintbrush or most expensive pigments were not going to turn me into a more skilled painter; I had to put in the time regardless of the tools in my hand. I had to train my eye to see color, composition, shape and line. I had to learn how much water to add for the effect I was attempting. I had to learn how the paint would react on a certain type and weight of paper. All this and much more took countless hours of trial and error and hundreds of failed attempts.

    As you’ve stated, there’s no other way to mastery in any discipline. The idea of spending the time to develop such skills will get you flamed royally on many mindless forums now. (Not telling you anything new here.) It isn’t just the hobby, this mentality has permeated practically every aspect of Western society. Genuine craftsmanship is as rare as it has ever been. If it were easy, everyone would be producing out standing work.

    Mike Cougill

  8. Trevor, your story illustrated a cultural shift when I read it.

    Let’s review: the speaker was building an engine under the supervision of his father, made a measuring error, the part was rendered useless. He concludes that the outcome of the experience was a ruined part. 3D printing will save us from ruined parts because we’ll never have to measure again. I find that to be a curious world-view, but I’m also not surprised.

    I’ll reframe the story as experiential learning. “Measuring skills are extremely important when building an engine. I know this because I once made a measuring error which rendered a part useless. My mentor/father/teacher reviewed the error with me. Perhaps he even PERMITTED the error to take place while I was under his tutelage. Regardless, I became much more skilled at measuring because the concept of a margin for error (or skill of reading a vernier dial, whatever) shifted from abstract instructions to a concrete experience. That’s how I became a skilled engine builder. Now when I prototype new parts with a 3D printer, I understand the importance of the margin or tolerance for error in part dimensions.”

    The first story draws a bead on the immediate outcomes. The speaker laments the drudgery of measuring and the waste of time and resources that takes place when it’s done wrong. In the end, it’s the utility of thing being measured that is at the centre of his story. The second story reframes the experience of measuring a concrete object as a prerequisite experience to learning how to build good prototypes with 3D printing.

    What’s valued by the speaker is measured in short-term economics: no more wasted parts or wasted time. What he missed is more holistic (in the sense that it addresses a whole system, rather than a part of it). In the second fictional story, my speaker is measuring economical value as well, but it’s a broader view of economics that has beaten out of fashion by ideologues.

    I imagine the story of the keynote speaker as an illustration of how cultural values are shifting. It also happens to identifies what I think is the epicentre of some big challenges that confront education in our rapidly changing world. As a society, we say that we want students to think critically about entire systems, but our culture is fixated on the immediate. The challenge is to use the technology the way the other commentators above have suggested. The tide against that view is monumental.

  9. Dear Trevor,

    I have been enjoying your blog for some months now, but I felt compelled today to respond to your post regarding craftsmanship. In 2009 I created a painting entitled ‘Farewell to Craftsmanship’
    which lead to a series of paintings and prints documenting the tools of my late father. It was from him that I learned the value craftsmanship and the pride of a job well done. I’m sure he would have valued the exceptional work displayed in your Port Rowan layout, as do I. Thank you for continuing to share with us.

    Peter Graham

  10. Trevor-

    It was the goal of the lecturer at your event to expound upon the virtues of 3d printing. Accordingly, I’m not surprised as to his dismissal of ideas advanced by others that call into question the ubiquity of the process.

    I think that 3d printing will be but one tool in a modeller’s toolbox, and a complementary rather than competing tool at that. It’s an easy trap to fall into by thinking that ANY process or tool will allow one to create everything.

    “To a man with only a hammer, every problem becomes a nail.”

    Steve Lucas.

  11. Hi Trevor,
    boy did that commentator get under your skin! Steve (Lucas) has the right angle on him; he’s just a commentator, paid to make noise and generate interest and discussion; and he’s been successful.

    There is another angle, though that concerns many “armchair” modellers who apparently prefer to use their computer rather than build models. You and I have had a number of discussions over the years about how to get this group out of their armchairs and away from their keyboards and to actually BUILD something – well, this 3D printing lark may well be the answer to that problem, and give this group a way to fabricate their dream model.


  12. Restating some themes above: 3D is a powerful new technology that lets us do some things much more easily and less expensively. It’s an evolving technology that still has limitations. I think Trevor’s point is that you (the designer) are still responsible for understanding the strengths and weakness of the tool and technology and designing and executing accordingly. 3D does NOT mean the instant or even eventual depth of all preceding methods and materials, it’s just another set of tools which we should embrace where it makes sense. As for measuring twice… that’s NEVER going to go away

  13. Thinking a bit more about Trevor’s post and the speaker who prompted it; clearly the anacdote about measuring says far more about the speaker than about technology. I actually think measuring is not as easy as Trevor states; you need the right tools, using a caliper or other tool more complex than a ruler and using it well are not necessarily easy nor something that comes naturally to most of us. That’s a big part of why craftsmanship is not easy or natural.

    I suspect the story of the ruined engine part explains why the speaker became a “visionary” rather than an engineer. Drawing that engine part in 3D CAD and gettng the correct tolerances taking into account the material being printed and the machine doing the work is a pretty complex undertaking, maybe more so than doing the work by hand. I suspect “visionary” is an appealing profession if you don’t like measuring things. You get to speak in broad general strokes and it’s hard for anyone to track and measure your accuracy in the long run!


    • Hi Pieter:
      Good points, of course – though I should clarify that I did not mean to suggest that measuring is “easy”. But it is easier, for example, to accurately measure the material to create a piston than it is to determine what size that piston should be. The first requires some training, good skills of observation, and patience. The second requires real understanding of how an engine works.

  14. Owning (or having access to) an oven doesn’t make one a chef. Possession of a set of scalpels doesn’t make someone a surgeon. Having a 3D printer is not going to magically make anyone a ‘designer’ any more than owning a word processor will magically make them an ‘author’. There will (at the outset) be a plethora of stolen IP produced and a whole lot more kitchy dust collectors will populate the shelves of the truly geeky and the slobbering techno-sheeple. Similar to the disappointment of owning a photo printer that never seems to have the right amount of ink or a clean print head, 3D printer owners will frequently find themselves unable to generate useful output due to a variety of technical issues that will be largely over their heads – not the least of which is an understanding of material properties and applications thereof. The real makers will continue to plough doggedly ahead by learning the important design elements and the skills to include them in a finished product. 3D Printing as the next Industrial Revolution? Only if you look at it from the standpoint of pain & suffering endured by the masses so a few overbearing bastards could get rich.

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