Battle in Print: The (Real) Power of Making

Paul Reeves, 24 October 2011

The exhibition titled ‘The Power of Making - the importance of being skilled’, intended to be ‘a celebration of the empowering nature of making and the human instinct to create’, (1) has recently opened at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. As well as containing a varied set of exhibits, from a 6-necked guitar to a 48 cylinder motorcycle, some of the most notable objects are practical and high tech, yet still hand crafted, such as a crocheted medical implant. Given that the exhibition is presented in partnership with the Crafts Council, it is not surprising that emphasis is put on individual skills and the processes involved in the direct interaction of individuals with materials, whether forming them into original objects in clever ways or more generally with tinkering and fixing existing but broken objects. So, to me, the exhibition and much of the accompanying book tends to highlight, or at least concentrate, on the direct relationship between the individual, their skills and made ‘things’.

Also included from the manufacturing view point is a 3D printer – in general terms a basic example of what many see as the next revolution in manufacturing; additive manufacturing. Additive manufacturing is seen as being revolutionary, firstly because rather than many existing ‘subtractive’ processes – such as milling and turning- it is perceived as involving less waste. Secondly 3D printing is seen as having democratising possibilities, by allowing individuals to manufacture many items and components in their own homes or workshops, which at present can only be designed and manufactured by larger companies. Whilst I have many doubts about the short to medium term ability of personal automated manufacturing to actual deliver on the production of anything durable – let alone useful ‘in the home’ or garage, my main concern with the individualization of production, as anything other than a time filling and personally satisfying hobby, is that it negates the real (but often invisible) ‘power of making’ of industry. 

In the manufacturing industry, ignoring just for a moment the historical tensions and conflicts between owners and workers, we have often huge numbers and groups of people - company owners, employees, customers and suppliers - working in modern design and supply chains to produce the vast majority of our material needs. These can be from absolute essentials such as food, clothes, energy and heating units, through to modern ‘essentials’ such as cars, landline phones, plate glass for windows and finally onto non essential ‘desirables’ such as iPads, iPods and stiletto heeled shoes. Despite sporadic class tensions or just simple disagreements and personality clashes between individuals working in teams, somehow industrial organizations manage to increase productivity over time, produce products of better quality and innovate to produce new products that as customers we hadn’t even realized we wanted. Even smaller companies and individuals fit in to these large organizational chains to produce the wonders of the modern age from large aircraft such as the Airbus 380, subsea telecommunication cables and communications satellites, to smaller marvels such as the aforementioned iPod .You probably need to be over 40 to recall the huge reconfiguration of both the mechanisms for playing music - from vinyl through CDs to MP3s and the sheer reduction in physical size of what a music collection is - to how it is published and distributed. Of course large non manufacturing industries such an insurance and film also produce ‘products’ based around similar sophisticated levels of organization. As time goes on the distinction between manufactured components and their factory assembly into modules and products and pure service based products (such as healthcare) will diminish. With the Rolls Royce aerospace provision of ‘power by the hour’ in the corporate space to long term car leasing in the consumer space, manufactured goods will increasingly just be part of a mixture of service components some tangible, some intangible, which come together as a service.

Many might see a dehumanising side to much of this hierarchically organized large corporate industry. Cultural images from such films as Metropolis to I’m all Right Jack highlight the high drudgery and repetitive factory aspects which reinforce this view. The dehumanising side of much factory work – even in the modern economy of the UK – is not to be dismissed, yet as anthropologist Daniel Miller points out in the exhibition book, many in the 3rd world see the positive sides of industrialization and wanted to give up farming and small scale manual work for more rewarding work, including factory work. However, what many of the various TV programs which aim to celebrate engineering and manufacturing tend to do is concentrate on the end product – as in the recent program about Rolls Royce aero engines which went into some detail regarding the impressiveness of the manufacturing technique for single crystal Turbine blades (3).

What I feel is often missed, even by adherents of manufacturing, is the degree of non-manual complexity and effort required to shepherd and manage the design of a complex product such as a car an aircraft engine, of the aircraft it powers. When people think car manufacturing they generally think ‘factory’ – where in actual fact that is just the tip of the iceberg, where final assembly to the end product is performed. What they do not see are the teams of people in market research (and I mean proper hard, analytical market research), new technology ‘capability acquisition’ (think airbags, ABS brakes) and component procurement (to make use of the supply chain’s products, such as lights and brakes) to name just a few hidden areas. This is in addition to the teams of design engineers who take the high level design parameters for customers and markets – such as style, performance, fuel economy – and who then must cooperatively make all of the various tradeoffs required to produce the manufacturing process which in turn produces a final product that not just works technically – but works in the markets. Much of this has to be done by ‘future-ing’, by estimating what the market will be in 5 or more years from the projects inception. All of this adds to the complexity compared to the simple products that an individual designer can do in their head for a one off or simple product such as bespoke clothing or even a range of dinnerware.

I can see why people may prefer or gravitate to the idea of the small scale and personal – but in many cases I guess there is lurking the idea of ‘let me get off of the world for an evening and give me back some control over my life’, especially with the support of some like minded people, where there’s none of that having to deal with an awkward boss (who’s not quite sure what he wants) or a co –worker who’s not over forthcoming with information. My (not so) secret feeling about the modern day hobby of open source software development – is that some of the devotees see an escape from the ‘alienation’ of their day jobs, probably hang around until they disagree with someone on the ‘team’ or just get fed up & then have the ‘freedom’ to silently leave the project to go on to another. It is only those open source projects which have a leader with a clear vision that make the light of usefulness. Some see 3D printers as being able to enabling ‘the means of production’ to be liberated from the corporate world and allowing for likeminded individuals to work on open source engineering type projects, which will probably be more sustainable and definitely allow for more self expression. But if this were ever to be a practical reality would it ever enable the real gains of the types of products and services which we have seen develop over the last century, from the huge gains in transportation and infrastructure to industrialised farming and pharmaceuticals?

An important part of the foundations of the modern post world war two formulation of industry had its roots in WWII and previous to the war at Bell Labs– but the largest identifiable progression occurred when the Apollo program took off in the 60s. Stephen B Johnson (3) describes the rapid evolution of systems management (or systems engineering) which was initiated to prevent the fatalities and launch failures which had occurred in the earlier Mercury and Gemini programs and also the low launch success rate in the United States ICB missile program of the 50s. This was the start of the development of a methodology which could start to systematically organize the various and often large, powerful, competing (and mainly defence) contractors as well as the NASA bureaucracy as well as the rocket propulsion scientists and engineers at JPL, into a design, test and management network, which could develop a reliable system to land on the moon by the end of the decade. On this goal the project was a complete success. Of course there were many down sides and budget over runs were common – but the politicians did not lose their nerve and funding continued at least until the moon landing mission was accomplished.

Since Apollo the European and other space agencies work on similar principles and aerospace and large car manufactures have adopted similar processes. Other downsides do exist (although if budget is a priority – systems management is now better at optimizing to meet this target), in particular organizations which adopt systems management can tend to lose their drive to innovate over a period of time and when some of the techniques which are based on meeting targets are miss-applied to situations such as health care delivery, the results can be disastrous.

Although many more large scale projects are delivered on time and on budget than might be thought – there are the glaringly bad cases which make the headlines– often IT ones and military projects. In health care for example it is arguably the failure to identify the proper goals and have the leadership to reach them without loss of nerve, which may be the problem, rather than the idea of systems management or the idea that we can do ‘big projects’ itself. Systems management may not be the answer to how we orchestrate all large problems and we may have to re-think how large projects are managed and delivered – but we shouldn’t forget the large strides it gained us and also that much of the time Big IS Beautiful and just because the world can seem complex, we shouldn’t retreat in to the individual and familiar.

In all then, systems engineering – in combination with some of the better so called ‘Japanese management’ techniques and statistical techniques has allowed us to produce the even more complex products which must mix aesthetic form with function and be reliably produced in large numbers. Cars for example are now far cheaper for what you get, of a far higher quality, last longer (even Alfa-Romeos don’t rust as much anymore due to the better statistical techniques used in manufacturing), are safer for passengers and pedestrians and, after a period of ‘jelly mould’ designs in the 80s and 90s, often look far better on than those design classics of the 60s and 70s. Of course, despite being able to safely accelerate to speeds far higher than the motorway speed limit (and also stop far more effectively and safer than in the past) the general cultural shift to constrain such ambitions as to go faster is acting as a far more effective societal brake than any modern ceramic or Kevlar lined brake pad acts as a physical brake on an individual car.

So whilst even in industry individual skills based around human and material contact and processing, mediated only by hand tools are still in some industries important – it is the large scale mediation of component and large tool designs by individuals, teams and organizations, using hidden systems such as the Toyota Product Development System– that give us the far superior and better quality products than earlier generations had.

We need to start to celebrate the fact that with larger and more complex systems the tools and techniques to organize ourselves to produce them, we can have large scale products such as national electricity grids as well as transport systems which allow us to have the electric light and warmth to give us the extra fee time to pursue our hobbies and crafts simply for the pleasure they give (and without growing blind and developing rheumatism in the process) , rather than have to rely on our individual ‘folk’ skills to produce and mend and somehow get back in touch with our nostalgic inner self. Personally, even though I may be estranged in some way from my employer’s end product, I’m happier contributing to a more positive and expansive future where we don’t know where we may end up, creating and solving problems on the way rather than some static and at best slightly better future version of what we have now. If we had more political and business leaders who would be prepared to be bold enough to lead us there – I think there might be more people who would think this way too.


Paul Reeves, principal software developer, Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks R&D; former senior researcher, International Automotive Research Centre, University of Warwick


(1) ‘Power of Making’ introduction of book accompanying the exhibition of the same name. Edited by Daniel Charny.
(2)  How to Build… - A Jumbo Jet Engine BBC – June 2010
(3)  Johnson, Stephen B. The Secret of Apollo: Systems Management in American and European Space Programs (Johns Hopkins U Press, 2002).

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