Posted on behalf of Jo Baker
Scientists are makers. The specialized skills they hone in the lab over many years – from assembling robots and circuits to growing microbes and cells – mirror the practices of artisans such as seamstresses and potters. Chemists may melt, stretch and snap a glass tube to make a pipette. Jewellers rearrange silver atoms each time they warm the metal to anneal or soften it.
Bringing together makers of all stripes to innovate was the focus of MAKE:SHIFT, a two-day biennial conference this month in Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry, home to Charles Babbage’s loom-inspired computing machines. Scientists and designers explored in talks, panel discussions and demonstrations how joint working can advance sustainability, healthcare and communities.
Across smart materials, biodesign, wearable electronics and more, the speakers showed how such collaborations have led them to think and work differently. They explored emerging trends, such as 3D printing and small-scale production. And they asked big questions, such as how the concepts of craft and making have become lost in today’s digital world of instant gratification, yet remain central to hatching new models and cultures of innovation. The following insights and individuals stood out.
Tools and workshops are increasingly accessible, linked and powerful. Fabrication labs or ‘fab labs’ – where members of the public and skilled experts recycle furniture or even edit genes – are proliferating. There are now 700 around the world. And 16 cities (including Barcelona, Boston in the US and Shenzhen) have signed up to become ‘fab cities’– aiming to produce locally 50% of what they consume by 2054. Online networking and exchanges of experience between make spaces is increasing, linking know-how in California with needs in Cape Town, for example.
Small-scale manufacturing is on the rise, aided by the Internet and cheaper production technologies such as 3D printers. Digital blueprints allow anyone with such means to construct furniture or even houses locally. Generic designs can be customized. Garment patterns that can be tweaked and knitted on demand avoid wastage. Customers increasingly care where their products come from, and value sustainability, social good and ethical work practices.
The nature of materials is being rethought. Bio-materials such as fungal webs (mycelium) can be used to ‘grow’ bricks, pots and even dresses on wood-chip, clay or textile frames. Amsterdam-based ecodesigner Maurizio Montalti of Officina Corpuscoli described how, after working with University of Utrecht microbiologists on scaling up these fungal creations, his studio began to look more like a lab. University College London materials scientist Mark Miodownik invoked a future devoid of roadworks if self-healing asphalt becomes reality.The Anthropocene offers new geologically inspired materials. ‘Fordite’, or ‘detroit agate’, is made from fine layers of hardened car paint and can be cut and polished like semi-precious stone. We may one day dig up deposits of ‘bone marble’, retrieved from the metamorphosed skeletons of culled farm animals. The fashion industry is the second most polluting in the world, but sportswear company Adidas is scooping waste plastics out of the ocean to make its knitted footwear.
Crafts people are sensitive to people’s emotional responses to materials and objects. Yet few designers are included in research teams examining interactions between robots and humans, for example. Caroline Yan Zheng from London’s Royal College of Art is using soft robotics to make wall panels and accessories that swell or reshape in response to facial emotions. People tell her they find them comforting; one day they might be used to promote calm in hospitals.
Surgery is a craft – you don’t want your operation done by someone who has only read a book. Richard Arm from Nottingham Trent University brought in gorily realistic models of parts of the thoracic cavity that he has been making in silicone for surgeons to train on – complete with slimy finish, spurting arteries and the slash across the chest for you to dig your hand into. But introducing design innovations into the healthcare sector is difficult, Jeremy Myerson from the Royal College of Art noted; the sector is risk averse. His redesigned ambulance interior reduces the time it takes for paramedics to treat a patient’s wounds, by giving them better access to the patient and equipment. Yet, despite running it through ‘clinical trials’ successfully, it has yet to be taken up.
For making to drive innovation, many challenges need to be overcome. Craft has an old-fashioned hobbyist image, and many courses are closing as universities struggle to attract students. Yet jewellers and textile and industrial designers are open to new materials and technologies as never before, while few scientists are trained in metalworking or AutoCAD. And it is hard even to define what tacit skills and knowledge are.
That said, some technologies are overhyped. 3D printing remains expensive and impractical with many materials, such as porcelain. While printing is useful to make a detailed prototype, traditional processes like casting are often better for mass production. Also, the software needs to become more intuitive. Ann Marie Shillito of Edinburgh College of Art showed how she is using touch-sensitive ‘haptic’ computer design software to form organic shapes.
So how far can this model of local production be scaled? Ways must be found to promote collaboration between workshops, and optimize who makes what, where. And new business models are needed so that small-scale manufacturers can make a living; most workspaces depend on government grants. Nonetheless, MAKE:SHIFT was a heartening experience that highlighted what science and design have in common rather than, as is too often the case, what divides them. After all, even graphene (carbon that is 1 atomic layer thick) has been linked to traditional craft: the Japanese paper-cutting art of kirigami have been applied to graphene sheets to make stretchable electrodes, hinges and springs.
Jo Baker is senior Comment editor at Nature.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.