Last week I attended 21st Century Manufacture at the Royal Society of Art in London. This is a-not-quite-verbatum write up of the happenings there and how it fits with my research. You can listen to the RSA podcast here.

Introduced by Emily Campbell who indicated that the RSA in the past was mostly about championing the best of professional design, and that now it is exploring how society can benefit. The RSA loosely see design as resourcefulness, a practiced ability to make something with the resources available. The RSA now explores the suggestion that the resourcefulness that designers have would be better distributed and society enhanced if design were released from this rather narrow definition of design as a professional activity and more people learned it, more people acquired the capability to design.

Emily acknowledges ‘Of course, the new technologies of design and manufacturing, so called 3D printing, theoretically at least, present incredible opportunities to re-distribute design, to reinvigorate local production and to put a rapid prototype, a custom object, and a perfect fit into the hands of all kinds of people who may never have called or thought of themselves as a designer or manufacturer.’ But she wonders ‘if enough of us really know enough design to transform this great promise into a manufacturing renaissance, which some people say it will be. Some people say we will have a 3D printer on our kitchen counter in a few years.’

She asks ‘Do these new ways of making answer a universal need to fabricate or is it that we should more modestly predict that they will advance the interests of commercial manufacturers & craft hobbiests so the RSA asked Hugh Aldersley Williams to consider the social impact of new materials and manufacturing technology.’

‘His answer couched in a historical long view of user engagement in design from low grade tin smithing in the pre-modern period through the arts and crafts in the 20th century, through ergonomics is all contained in the pamphlet ‘The new tin ear: Manufacturing, Materials and the rise of the User-Maker…’  [Not available digitally yet]


‘We are here to talk about 21st century manufacture, which looks like it’s going to be very different from 20th or 19th century manufacture and in someways perhaps more like 17th or 14th century manufacture. Thats not because of any rejection of technology or any sort of reversal of the industrial revolution. It is infact because the technology of making is radically changing so that the paradigm of factory located mass manufacture no longer applies though we have come to know it, if not love it. The received idea that the things we need are designed by remote specialists and made remotely by others is under challenge. The new possibilities of objects to be formed locally on demand using digital data about form and applying that to suitable 3D media in a process of one off fabrication often called for now as Emily said 3D printing, or equally clumsily really additive manufacture. It raises questions about how we organise our society, it not only makes nonsense of massive factories where does it leave designers? One answer seems to be that it puts them closer to the people for whom they are designing another is that it does away with them all together & allows us the chance to design our own thing and this is beginning to happen in relatively trivial ways at least. But the potential is far more significant objects that fit our individuality whether physically like prosthetics or customised tools, or emotionally from the shear satisfaction of having made something useful for ourselves. This may in turn force us to rethink the already troubled meaning of craft and the purposed or need for things at all. So manufacture, design, craft, or the relation between object and person, the purpose of making things, that is the range of territory I hope we will end up exploring this evening.’

Introducing Assa Ashuach: ‘Assa’s studio combines product design working in conjunction with architects including self production. He studied in Israel and moved to London in 2001. He was one of the founders of digital forming, one of the first companies to make it possible for customers to get their own designs made. He leads the MA design course at London Metropolitan. He is going to talk about the model he has developed, where users and designers can work together to make better products.’

Assa: ‘My personal vision of the coming 10 years or so, or it might be 2 years… The tools that we have now are not only hammers and chisels, they are also communication tools and I think the big element in this kind of revolution is celebrating communication in different ways, and, there are many questions but one for me today is, is it a game or a real benefit? I think it is a real benefit but some part of it is a game. A bit about myself, I am a product designer coming from hardcore product design, moving into more decorative aesthetics, not only short life products. Now I will start with a few projects form the past…’

Polypix, a hybrid betweeen polygons and pixels. A digital material that Assa compares to gold and wood.

Assa spoke of a number of his projects including ‘standup trousers’, ‘501 Chair’- a chair optimised using technology, using only the essential bits, the redundant bits removed. This of course makes reference to the new capabilities in terms of geometries and structures made possible by such technologies, as well as the possibilities afforded my computational design and manufacture. The idea of ‘Object DNA’  –  visible through his research at London Met, ‘materialisation of objects in the best way. Thinking about code as a virtual material, this is not FEA but FEA in advance’, software enables you to test in advance.

Furthermore as demonstrated through his so called ‘AI Lamp’ Assa makes reference to the possibilities of designing adaptive, learning and perhaps evolutionary products. (I am not talking about robotics but the comparison is here)

His explanation of the AI light is interesting to behold. Describing it as having an ‘AI brain that senses space through five different sensors. Using a biologically inspired mechanism, this structure morphs and generates new behaviours according to your personal space.

When you invite it first into your home, you have to let it get accustomed to its new environment. Once it is relaxed, training can begin. It has five senses that track changes in its environment and slowly it develops a set of behaviours that indicate a new character to each light. The user is also able to interact with the light by playing with it through sounds, light and movements’ Interesting ideas of personal training and natural interfaces.’

Its not quite possible to accurately transcribe Assa’s talk without his presentation (perhaps the RSA will release the video of the talk in due course). He talks of applications, software and product, where the user is input, flexible structures allowing us to manipulate in not just virtual but physical. I guess the important thing is that Assa talks about using the user as an input. It is here that my research is situated, considering how product design happens in a connected world. With new technologies, and our ability to analyse and collect user data the possibilites for product design are notable.

My question here has been about how active or passive the user engagement is. So often we have been moving through user centred design towards participatory and user led design, the role of the user increasing as this paradigm of user engagement progresses. Without discounting the value of the approach I am wondering if this is always the right approach, some will see this as protectionism of the designer as expert mindset but that is not my agenda. I think that we can streamline and add value to the user engagement process by harnessing the capabilities of the digital world we exist in. Sensors and algorithms to shape or design the product in the first instance using data collected from the user, to create responsive, adaptive, learning or perceptive products.

I have made this point before, but it didn’t really receive any traction, possibly because I was talking with traditional product designers (against user led methodologies and) disconnected from the digital advancements that make this an exciting research area in which to engage.

Assa appears to operate in a similar mindset, ‘I think that in the future we will study users in different ways and harness the user behaviour patterns to create better products.‘ Assa speaks of AI, which I find to be a problematic concept here but nonetheless it is possible to grasp the concept.

A few other points of note from Assa ‘suddenly gaming and product design is morphing into something great’, considering the possibilities of game software in product design, here Assa alluded to assembly software, showing animations of dinosaur type creatures and their gait and movement, it is possible to see how this can be applied to the movements and mechanisms of products.

Intellectual property : ‘mating , growing and breeding products, if it is a code it is geometry, we can blend them and have kids so who owns what?’

Creating constraints: Assa has developed software tools that break 3D product designs into point clouds which may be manipulated virtually, importantly Assa indicates the value of constraining the boundaries of manipulation. Suggesting that ‘if you give someone a material with no character and ask them to make something from it, it will not happen.’ Are boundaries valuable? I think so.

Sustainability: ‘Its not only about generating products but progress in terms of the way we make things – sustainability – ‘This is air until someone pays for it.’ I’m trying to keep these objects virtual for as long as possible.‘ This reflects on the possibilities of new distribution techniques, local, distributed manufacture. Networks of producers rather than huge factories.

Passive study – currently ‘there is no real time interaction with objects‘ I think here Assa refers to product analytics which is an emerging if not yet well understood field of practice.

Objects that study you: Giving an example of a shoe, he uses sensors to measure pressure under your foot and 3D scan your feet. You can then create perfect shoes based on your needs. ‘A shoe that studies you while you walk, collecting data, streaming it to the cloud, influencing the design of your next shoe. The notion of personal information, what we can do with personal information.

Panel Discussion:

Sebastian Conran

Referred to one of the criticisms commonly applied in this domain computational/digital aesthetics, the idea that an identifiable aesthetic emerges from digital manufacture,  ‘Oh look, its a lava lamp’. He goes on to say ‘we are used to form following function, form following fabrication, form following failure, form following fashion, form following focus groups and increasingly form following funding and form following futures.’ He asks ‘is it going to be sustainable?’. Interestingly he asks are we going to be looking at something like Moore’s law, finer, faster, cheaper, is there a glass ceiling for digital manufacture?

He asks is it a transient technology, suggesting it probably is not, as a product designer it excites him, no longer does he have to think about the constraints of previous technologies, embracing freedom, but freedom he suggests comes at a price.

Making that old reference to disruptive technologies that came before Sebastian refers to graphic design, and the ability for many to use consumer graphic tools, which has not made designers redundant but rather facilitated an upswing in demand for professional design. Finally he asks can we use this technique to recycle materials? Why are we not making this equipment in the UK?

Rowland Harwood

‘Anyone has the power to create, this is an empowering thing to embrace.’ Rowland refers to the music industry and how digital technology impacted it, and how this relates to manufacturing. In reference to the designer, ‘you still have Madonna and Coldplay’ but also people in their bedrooms using youtube.

Rowland touches upon 3 themes: Customisable, ownership, value.

Customisation – he points to Nespresso and Lego mindstorms online communites who – customise their products and invalidate warranty, in both of these cases they could have tried to sue but actually mindstorms became the most successful Lego product – people are picking up on this.

Points to the value of designing for the individual and indicates Enabled by design – by Denise Stephens – who, diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, tired of the aesthetic of assistive equipment embarked on a social design business.

Ownership – IP, Ideas are worthless, what we lack are things with momentum, and people to realise them, who owns what? I’ve touched on IP related to digital manufacture previously. Ideas benefit from socialisation… refer to his blog.

Neil Hopkinson

‘As the engineer in the room, my job is to couch this in an understanding of where we are at and where we will go in the future.‘ As it stands, he indicates that this is a valid technology, one already embedded in the aerospace industry and one which will get faster, cheaper and finer, and that we are observing reducing  material costs by virtue of increasing investment by interested parties ( this is one to watch). His most pressing question coming from a Sebastian comment is that of – why are we not making this technology in the UK?


Dan Sopher (didn’t quite catch his name) appeared interested in democratisation of manufacture and the impact on capitalism. Redistributing the tools of production, undermining traditional industry ivory towers and asked do we think that distributed manufacture will be realised perhaps home manufacturing?


Neil: already we see a split between hobbiests, education, professional so you could say that we are on the way there and that if distributed manufacture is to be realised we will need standards.

Assa – we are working towards a hotel booking system, a neighbourhood system, networked, local, distributed manufacture. A lovely example that already exists is that of The Newspaper Club and Droog are mowing towards working in this space.

Tim Abrahams – of  Blueprint made perhaps the most interesting point of the evening for me. Acknowledging a tendancy towards aesthetics of complexity – he suggests this technology should be understood as a system, we should consider how we turn this tech into a system rather than a standalone technology. I think there is value in considering this and in the past I have argued that this has less to to with the tool and more to do with the systems, communities and networks that emerge around the technology.

Audience question – ‘what is the research on emotional attachment?’ I touched upon this during my MRes year and I will revisit this in due course but there is evidence of increased consumer product attachment, increased willingness to buy and longevity of ownership associated with involving the user in the design process.

Of course in any conversation about new manufacturing technologies a debate on whether the user can be designer emerges, which I leave up to you to decide.

Audience question – if we aren’t careful this technology will allow people to create more – just like the printer has enabled us to print more?

My response – This has been one of the sore points of my research in this field, and has radically changed my views.  If you look at any ‘democratising’ design or manufacture approach (i don’t like the terms either) you’ll probably, at some point question the value of the emergent designs and product in these spaces. To use more jargon – these approaches serve a long tail. I must never forget that things that I as a product designer with rather niche tastes frown upon, are valuable to the user who designed and created it. Here is is important to remember what motivates users, this might be an unfulfilled need, experimental learning, sheer curiosity…  And of course this concern isn’t a new concern, if you think about printing and the shift from the printing press to home printing, music industry to user generated youtube content… each industry in its turn faces this question, as the democratising potential of digital advancements make possible increased user participation. There are advantages and disadvantages, the question is how do we navigate this?

It is of course worth considering the approaches designers and manufacturers have developed to ensure that ‘bad design’ is not the inevitable output. Here Assa suggests that value of constraints, and I for one see the value, not in all cases but with the type of products he supposes, yes.

Someone made this point ‘The danger is that we dismiss the niche hobbiests, it is exciting that you put the tools of production in peoples hands, sometimes ignorance is great…’

Rowland referred to lead-user motivation here – citing diabetes and how previously it was necessary for patients to visit their doctors to receive their medication. This was so inconvenient for one that he trained as a doctor just to be able to inject himself, it is from this unfulfilled need that insulin pens were developed. The potential of this technology and the associated open, user innovation communities that emerge alongside is obvious.

Finally someone of  Seymourpowell – pointed to  ‘The theatre of manufacture.’ The idea of the creation or manufacturing process being of commercial value as a spectator sport, or spectacle. As an ex retail kid this excites me greatly and I addressed this last year .

To conclude this, I have been looking at this area of research since 2007, and recently I became very disillusioned, old arguments, misunderstandings and grievances. However this RSA discussion was perhaps one of the more informed talks I have attended since which is a relief. This area of research is valuable to consider and there is progress afoot. In considering this, it is important to understand why we have operated in the mass-manufacture framework and to understand that these new technologies have very different capabilities. We cannot pursue the same goals, the same cost efficiencies but we can embrace individuality, localism and democratisation.


2 thoughts on “21st Century Manufacture – The RSA

  1. Thanks for the post Natasha. I am happy to read it as it reinforces my own view of where this space is heading, although I find your conclusion logical and don’t understand why you became dissilllusioned with your research – although being so close to a subject can also have this effect. I have also been lucky enough to have been communicating with lots of people doing interesting work here in NZ (Ponoko, 77 Pieces, Weta Digital) and they are far from atypical Industrial Designers entrenched in old modes of thought.

    Keep up the good work, keep your chin up and keep on truckin’.

  2. Pingback: Future Human fisticuffs | Point of Use

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