In concert with technology

This essay was written by Miguel Gómez-Ibáñez, president of North Bennet Street School and published in the Spring 2014 issue of the school's newsletter Benchmarks.

I am often asked about the use of computers at North Bennet Street School and the impact of the rapidly emerging technology related to 3D printing. My response has been to say that it is hard enough to cover the skills we want to teach in the time allowed in the full-time programs. I add that North Bennet Street School has been successful because of the unique nature of the skills we teach and the level at which we teach them. An education in computers is available virtually anywhere. An education in craftsmanship is our franchise.

Are these just glib answers to important questions? It seemed so after a recent evening with a friend in Maine.

Model of the yacht “Atlantide” by Robert Eddy. Click on the photo for slideshows of Eddy's process and projects.

Rob Eddy, a jeweler in Camden Maine, is one of the most skilled craftsmen I know. Over the past 40 years, he has developed a niche market for himself building exquisitely detailed models of yachts commissioned by the owners of some of the most famous yachts in the world. They take up to a year to build and can sell for six figures. The decks are pear wood veneer, constructed so accurately that every plank of the original deck is represented. Tiny ships fittings are made of white gold to simulate stainless steel, yellow gold to simulate bronze and green gold to simulate weathered bronze. One of his signature details is a tiny diamond set into the top of each winch that looks like the star shaped recess for the winch handle.

Rob taught himself to draw with Autocad in the 1990’s but recently he has begun experimenting with 3D printers. He showed me a white gold casting of a ship’s wheel. Just an inch or so across, the wheel has twelve spokes, each made of .025 inch diameter white gold rods. Last year, it would have taken him a week to build the wheel by hand, forming a perfect circle and soldering the individual spokes. This year he sent a drawing file to a 3D printer and printed a wax model which he then he used to create a lost-wax casting. The wax version was so detailed that it was printed in layers of 30 microns, or half the thickness of a human hair. After the part was cast, he spent about four hours finishing the the wheel.

In Rob, I see the positive impact of computers on the life and the work of a craftsman. He doesn’t use computers to compensate for a lack of ability. He has the technical knowledge and the hand skills required to create the pieces he now builds with the help of 3D printing. He is using the new technology to reduce the thousands of hours it takes to produce each model, making his life as a craftsman more viable. While you might say, in the words of David Pye, he is reducing his involvement in the “workmanship of risk” and turning more toward the “workmanship of certainty,” Rob approaches new technology with the curiosity of a life-long learner and problem solver, not as someone looking for a short cut. If you were to add up the hours he has spent becoming proficient with the programs and processes of computer assisted design and fabrication, the time it has saved him in building his models would appear insignificant.

The mission statement of North Bennet Street School directs us to teach hand skills “in concert with evolving technology”. Does that mean just table saws and power tools? Perhaps there is a more considered role for computers and 3D printers in a school of craft, and our task is to lead the way. Suggesting that we not use machines in the furniture program would be laughable. Someday we may feel the same about 3D printers.

Note: There is a short video about direct casting with Solidscape, on YouTube.

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Rob approaches new technology with the curiosity of a life-long learner and problem solver, not as someone looking for a short cut.