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Is Digital Craftsmanship an Oxymoron?

On a funky old pier along San Francisco’s waterfront, Autodesk, a world leader in digital tools for makers, runs a futuristic prototype shop that may be redefining the meaning of craftsmanship.

Theme: The Artisans of the Automation Age


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In its very location, on San Francisco's Pier 9, Autodesk's prototype shop symbolizes a blend of the past and the future. Pictured here is a steel ship's propeller, midway through production on a massive 3-D printer. Photo by Scott Chernis.


  1. Elusive Boundaries
  2. What Is Craftsmanship?
  3. Digital Creativity
  4. Can Technology Partner With Nature?
  5. Intelligence of The Senses

In the summer of 2016, a handful of designers at Autodesk’s workshop at Pier 9, on the San Francisco waterfront, gathered to test yet another innovation: a robot that could give someone a real tattoo. To conduct this experiment, the designers had to go so far as to get Autodesk certified as a tattoo shop. Still, the first trial was fraught with enough danger that the designers initially planned to attempt it on a small scale, with a basic MakerBot.

To the designers’ surprise, Autodesk’s legal department advised the team to conduct the trial—which was going to imbed a spiral on one very daring man’s leg—as designed: with a real, full-sized industrial robot. “It’s pretty cool when you have legal telling you to use the big heavy thing instead of the little delicate thing,” recalls Paolo Salvagione, director of the Pier 9 Artist in Residency program.

“To me,” Harsuvanakit says, “craftsmanship is how much attention, and intention, and love you can put into an object.” open-minded explorations have also brought him into contact with what some see as today’s devil’s bargain in the world of craftsmanship: the process of “digital fabrication.”

As you can see from this video, the experiment worked, but it also provoked an immediate discussion within the tattoo community about what qualifies as artistry in this field. The artists behind this experiment—two Frenchmen named Johan DaSilveira and Pierre Emm—were clearly ecstatic about their achievement. Some tattoo traditionalists, not so much.

“There is a certain intimacy that comes with getting a tattoo,” wrote Carli Velocci on Gizmodo. “Not only are you decorating your own skin in a unique way, but you’re also sharing that experience with the artist who is essentially making you bleed over and over again.”

Velocci’s reaction is no surprise. For eons, the meaning of both art and craftsmanship has been linked to the personal; for most of us, calling something an example of fine craftsmanship is our way of saying that the object has some kind of special quality that comes largely from the expertise of the human hand. Then again, how do you define what is handmade?

Paolo Salvagione, who directs Autodesk’s Artist in Residence program, has long been a pretty experimental artist himself. He was on the design team for The Long Now Foundation’s famous 10,000-year clock; here, he is demonstrating a motorized sculpture that he calls a String Fountain. (If you want to build one yourself, the steps are laid out here, on Instructables.) Photo courtesy of Paolo Salvagione.


Mark Donohue, a San Francisco architect, has been using his residency at Pier 9 to design a 3-story suspended spiral staircase—a structure that, as far as he knows, has never been built before. Photo by Scott Chernis.

“If a set of tools existed before you were born, to most people, the stuff made with those tools is handmade,” Salvagione said, when I put this question to him. “Depending on your level of Amishness, any tool made after you were born is technology.”

To Mark Donohue, a San Francisco architect, no boundaries between the hand and the machine hold much meaning. Donohue is the former chair of the Architecture Dept. at California College of the Arts, and he has developed a term for his technological agnosticism: “digitall.” Just as yesteryear’s artisans used their hands and a hammer, Donohue says, “I use my hands and the computer screen. How do you define the end of your finger?”

Donohue is one of Autodesk’s current cohort of nine artists, architects, and other makers who are about to complete one of the company’s four-month Artists in Residence programs at Pier 9. During his stay (which comes with a stipend), Donohue has been designing a three-story suspended spiral staircase—which, as far as he knows, has never been built before. Without digital fabrication tools, he says, the process of building a model for this structure, testing it, refining it, and then re-building it at increasingly larger scales, would be almost impossible. Even with these tools, he expects his staircase project to take at least a year.

Donohue has found that digital fabrication tools—which include a growing array of highly programmable machines such as 3-D printers, robots, water jets, laser scanners, and 5-axis routers—are erasing what he calls “the digital divide.” He doesn’t mean the digital divide as commonly described, which is the unequal access to technology between rich and poor. Donohue is referring to the division between designing and building.

In the days before digital fabrication tools were available, Donohue says, he felt frustratingly dependent on a project’s builders. After designing and modeling a job, he’d have to create complicated specification sheets, send the designs out to contractors for bids, then navigate a long process of delays, misunderstandings, cut corners, mistakes on site, and so on. Now, with today’s more powerful modeling tools, he’s found that he can iterate through most of those construction challenges himself. “I feel like I’m getting closer to the craft,” he says.


For the first model of his spiral staircase, which was quite small, Donohue used this laser cutter to make all the stairs. Laser cutters require no programming, so they are often the tool that newbies start with when learning digital fabrication. Photo by Scott Chernis.

Arthur Harsuvanakit is a quiet, thoughtful young man who works in Autodesk’s generative design lab at Pier 9. With a background in woodworking as well as digital engineering, Harsuvanakit is a natural for his job: “to make sure the tools we design are not at the forefront of the making process, that there is a balance between technology and the hand-made. Right now, I’m trying to figure out how craft can survive.”

Which of course begs a question: What is craft—or craftsmanship—in an age of automation? “To me,” Harsuvanakit says, “craftsmanship is how much attention, and intention, and love you can put into an object.” Fair enough. But attention and passion can also be poured into a software program that directs a robot. Does that make the programmer, or the robot, a master craftsman?

Yes and no. Even with heavily automated machinery, he says, the beginning and end of a good production process—that is, the design phase, and then the finishing phase—is still highly dependent on human involvement. At the design stage, he says, those who are talented—who deeply understand both the material and the technology that will manipulate it—find ways to “push the tool past the predictability of the tool’s intent.”

At the finishing stage, traditional craftsmanship skills come into play. Curiously, even high-tech fabrication tools like a CNC milling machine (meaning Computer Numerical Control) can’t finish materials perfectly. That’s why Pier 9 is outfitted with a traditional machine shop, where people can run, say, a new ship propeller through a metal lathe to refine its lines, or smooth its edges. “That’s what separates quality machinists from just production,” Harsuvanakit says.

Jason Pohl of Orange County Choppers designed this bike using Autodesk’s 3-D modeling software. The parts, which were machined at Pier 9, were inspired by other vehicles: an aluminum front end from a sport bike, a large rear sprocket from a motocross racer, gas shocks from a snowmobile, and an electric engine (The full story is here, with a short video on the project here.) Photo by Scott Chernis.

Beyond finishing a piece properly, today’s digital fabrication tools present yet another challenge: choosing among their almost limitless number design possibilities. “Someone still has to curate,” Harsuvanakit says.


“How do you teach a machine to understand all these years of muscle memory, and tacit knowledge?” asks Stefanie Pender, a glassmaker. “Is it possible to take that, and translate it into data? Can you quantify that?”

To test these curating challenges, Harsuvanakit conducted an experiment. He and a colleague directed one of Autodesk’s software programs to design a chair. The only instructions they gave the program were that it should hold 300 pounds, with the seat 18 inches off the floor. Oh, and that it should somewhat resemble an existing chair, which had a very spare design, in the mid-20th century Danish style.

As the software churned through the possibilities, it selected for greater and greater efficiency: greater strength, less weight, less material. The further it took these calculations, the stranger and more macabre-looking the design got. “It just gets bonier as the iterations go higher,” Harsuvanakit told Wired magazine. “It’s cool to let it go too far—some of it looks like bug skeletons.” At a certain point, Harsuvanakit had to cut off the process, and curate the options based on some sense of aesthetics. “It’s interesting,” he concluded, “to see why people react to certain curves differently.”

These boundary-free explorations are precisely what Autodesk’s Artists in Residence program was designed to allow. And it has clearly opened up new worlds for the residents, especially traditional artisans. A prime example is Stefanie Pender, a glassmaker.

When Pender saw what she could do with glass through a kind of hot, 3-D printing technique, she was stunned by how her creations captured light. “It was a quality that I don’t think I’d ever seen before,” she says. The experience inspired her to keep pushing boundaries, while keeping one foot in the past. To Pender, the open question is this: “How do you teach a machine to understand all these years of muscle memory, and tacit knowledge? Is it possible to take that, and translate it into data? Can you quantify that?” (If you want to see Pender working through these glistening questions, look at this video.)


Computer controlled (or CNC) milling machines like this one are typically used for high-volume, precision production. At Autodesk, as Arthur Harsuvanakit explains here, designers use them mostly to test the flexibility of the software the company makes to drive these machines. Photo by Scott Chernis.

Noni Pittenger is a design engineer for C.W. Keller, a New Hampshire-based company that specializes in fabricating highly complex systems—primarily in wood, concrete, and metal. She, too, is now wrapping up a residency at Pier 9, and she’s using her time to refine the company’s laser projection capabilities. C.W. Keller uses laser projectors to increase the accuracy of its simulations—not only of a proposed project, but of the construction site where it will be built.

The data now generated by simulation tools like these go well beyond what you can see. They calculate for weather, humidity, and a host of other factors that can alter conditions on site. To account for such variations, contractors sometimes have to oversize or undersize their materials, connection points, or fasteners. And those are just a few of the possibilities for error. “The goal is always to get one step ahead of where the problems will arise,” Pittenger says.

This is why most engineering and construction firms try to limit complexities in their projects; not so at C.W. Keller. One stunning example of the company’s ambitions went up in 2014—a 230,000-square foot atrium at the Lowell campus of the University of Massachusetts. The crowning jewel of the project is a massive sculpture (called The Lantern) made of solid ash slats and powder-coated steel that encases three levels of balconies connected by a stairway.

Although built with more than 3,600 parts and weighing more than 12,000 pounds, the Lantern seems to float in the air. The project uses two sources of natural light, one of which comes from a 62-foot reflector. “With its wooden slats acting like baffles,” says Patrick Cunningham, one of the project’s architects, “the Lantern creates a play of intense and animated daylight on what would normally be a simple, artificially lit surface.” The irony here is superb. Here we have construction tools that are extremely high-tech, with almost virtual reality, being used to put more nature, more reality, into a building than it would get with traditional construction practices.

When a milling machine is programmed to create an object that is both strong and lightweight, what often results are weird, curvy structures that resemble skeletons—like this aluminum wheel truck built for a skateboard. The reason is that curved support pieces, strange as they look, are actually stronger than straight ones. Photo by Scott Chernis.

For Pittenger, that’s what building today is all about. Not coincidentally, Pittenger studied architecture at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, a prestigious, avant-garde institution known for its extreme philosophies. The education at SCIA is also rigorous, which left Pittenger with an unsparing opinion about what constitutes craftsmanship: “It’s a considered analysis of the task at hand.” In this business, she says, you can be almost certain that the conditions you design for “will change 180 degrees in the field.” To be ready for that, she believes, builders can’t “give up on the lessons you can learn, even if you run out of time, or money, or patience, or dedication.”

No matter how precise CNC-cut parts are, they usually need to be finished on a traditional, mechanical metal lathe like this one. The ability to do that kind of refining, Harsuvanakit says, “separates quality machinists from just production.” Photo by Scott Chernis.


In her critique of the tattoo robot, Gizmodo’s Carli Velcocci acknowledged that a machine could have some advantages. “Machines have steadier hands than humans, for instance,” she said. Still, she wondered, “how does it deal with a person who may flinch, messing up the pattern?

After surveying Autodesk’s robots, and its dizzying array of other automated tools for making things, it struck me that, at some point, technology will probably make the human hand irrelevant.

As it turns out, the French team that designed the robotic tattoo artist never put their invention to commercial use. But Harsuvanakit told me that it’s not difficult to program a robot to have an extremely quick response, and to then find its place again. Today, a woodworker can even program a digital fabricator to simulate chisel marks, and create an algorithm that varies these marks, or other small details, from piece to piece.

After learning this, and surveying Autodesk’s dizzying array of automated tools, it struck me that, at some point, technology will probably make the human hand irrelevant. Since I once wrote a book about the dangers of excessive reliance on technology (“The Flickering Mind: Saving Education from the False Promise of Technology,” 2003, 2004), I have fought through this argument journalistically for decades. So, while reporting on Autodesk, I could not resist putting the possibility to those I interviewed.

When drill bits are installed in a CNC machine, they are pre-heated, which turns the steel blue. The heating shrinks the metal so the fit remains tight, even when the bits heat up. That prevents the vibration and inaccuracy that CNC milling can produce from operating at ultra-high speeds. Photo by Scott Chernis.

To a person, everyone rejected the idea, claiming that the power of touch, and the insights that can be gleaned from it, will always be vital in digital fabrication. However, when I asked for proof of their argument in their own work, no one gave me any examples that seemed persuasive, at least not to me.

Donohue recounted an incident where structural engineers tested the strength of an awning, made from recycled milk bottles, simply by tugging on it—a nice touch, but hardly crucial to the production process. Harsuvanakit argued that the job of a digital fabrication programmer is to translate, and expand, “the intent of the hand.” And Pittenger talked about how, at C.W. Keller, the engineers frequently have to “go downstairs to the shop” to run their software designs by the company’s master woodworkers and metal smiths, whose hands-on expertise is critical for separating the possible from the impossible. In each of these examples, it’s not difficult to conceive of a day when better software, and eventually robots, will handle these tasks as well as humans, and probably far more efficiently.

One of the perks in working at Pier 9 is 24 x 7 access to the company’s various shops. In addition to digital fabrication equipment, Autodesk keeps a vast array of traditional metal-smithing and woodworking tools—a virtual playland for the serious maker. Photo by Scott Chernis.

Paolo Salvagione did point out one seemingly unavoidable drawback of digital fabrication tools—“the issue of latency.” If a carpenter hits a chisel with a hammer, he says, “the mark is made immediately. With a CAD (computer-assisted design) program, “there is a huge delay between swinging the hammer and the bang on the material.” Those delays interrupt the sensory feedback loop that craftsmen have relied on for thousands of years—a loop that is integral to a kind of intelligence of the senses. Then again, automation also allows endless opportunities, as Salvagione put it, “to hit Command/Z”—that is, to undo a mistake and try again.

But is that craftsmanship? Aren’t the world’s masters admired for their ability to get it right when the stakes are highest—when, say, a piece of fine furniture is nearly finished, and one mistake would destroy months of careful, costly work? What if Michelangelo’s sculptures could have been endlessly programmed to eliminate any parts that were out of proportion (a feature that many believe only contributed to their timeless magic and beauty). What if Michelangelo could have quickly remade his legendary statue of Moses, after he famously cracked its knee with a hammer while commanding it to come to life? Would this achievement in marble carry the same meaning?

If, or when, the day does come when the human hand no longer matters in craftsmanship, the transition will produce some very mixed blessings. On the one hand (literally), it will be a shame, because an elemental, physical force that has propelled human creativity throughout history will then disappear. On the other hand (literally), that shift might introduce a new level of democracy. It would open creative opportunities for people who aren’t terribly good with their hands; all they will need is a sense of quality, a limitless imagination, and uncompromising perseverance.

More stories from this issue:

The New Workforce Dilemma

Is Digital Craftsmanship an Oxymoron?

A Home-Grown Social Entrepreneur

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