Nylon chain mail, made by Freedom of Creation, printed in one piece using a rapid-prototype machine.
Nylon chain mail, made by Freedom of Creation, printed in one piece using a rapid-prototype machine.

The year is 2173. A group of scientists accidentally dig up health-nut Miles Monroe, who was cryogenically frozen 200 years earlier. He feels fine until he learns that he now lives in a world where smoking is healthy and vegetables are dangerous. Thus bewildered Monroe staggers into the opening scenes of Woody Allen's classic movie Sleeper, a movie that has always been popular with metallurgists since it depicts the ultimate drug as a metal ball called ‘The Orb’.

In Woody Allen's view of the future, robots have wit and culture. Happily, we may not have to wait 200 years for this fiction to become reality. This is because computer-controlled manufacturing machines are no longer the preserve of big industry – robots and lasers can now be bought by small businesses and craftspeople. For instance, designer Oliver Geoffrey recently started a new furniture shop in Brick Lane, London. To set up, he first installed a single computer numerical control (CNC) machine at the back of an empty shop. Then, using one type of material feedstock – 8' × 4' sheets of plywood – he programmed the robot to build all the interior fittings, and all the tables and chairs for sale.

Customers can order any design that they see in the shop, which is then tailored digitally to their exact needs; so a table can be bigger or smaller, higher or lower. All the components for assembly are then scaled proportionately using technology developed by the automotive industry. Once happy with the design, the customer gives the go-ahead and the CNC machine crafts their unique table there and then. There is no stock and no product catalog, just a pile of plywood leaning against the back wall and an unflustered CNC machine lounging in the middle of the shop, like an athlete preparing for competition.

This use of robotic technology, not as a means for mass production but to craft individual items, is even more advanced in the jewelry industry. Here, rings are designed on computers to individual specification, and then an investment mold is produced automatically using rapid-prototype technology.

Similarly, design and architecture are being revolutionized by the ability to turn an idea into a three-dimensional model almost instantly. There are now many different types of three-dimensional technologies and a huge range of materials that can be sintered, laser cut, welded, cured using ultraviolet light, or just printed. Using three-dimensional printers, complete objects with moving parts and hinges can now be produced in the same way that you print a document.

Importantly, these machines are affordable, so that jewelers, designers, and craft cooperatives can now compete on price and precision with big business. Oliver Geoffrey's chairs, for instance, are sold for the same price as mass-produced ones, even though each is made a different size to suit each member of the family.

Many would not regard such activity as craft, since the word is synonymous with a hands-on mastery of a material. But just as art spent the 20th century refusing to be defined by technique, so might the craft community in the 21st century. Homemade clothes are often made using help of sewing machines but are no less crafted for the help of this domestic robot. We do not have to stitch every stitch or make the cloth itself to be a craftsperson.

The implication for many is that art is about the physical action of putting paint on canvases and craft is about cutting wood or molding clay. But history shows that the human creative urge and technology have long been partners: photography started off as a science and became an art, and in the meantime had a profound effect on painting. It will be interesting to see whether rapid-prototype technology will do the same for sculpture.

The revolutionary nature of this technology is clear, since all you need to make a new furniture shop is a CNC machine and the digital DNA of some of Geoffrey's designs. For once though, technology is not threatening the craft of local communities, but supporting them at the expense of factories, mass production, and the powerful vested interests of corporations.

The technology is revolutionary in another sense too because as soon as we can make a rapid-prototype machine that can make itself, the means of production will be available to all. To some, the thought of such reproductive machinery causes unease, since it seems to threaten nature's monopoly on self-reproducing organisms and question the uniqueness of life. We may take comfort in Woody Allen's thoughts on the matter, “Only God can make a tree, probably because it's so hard to figure out how to put the bark on.”

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(05)71321-3