All you can do with materials


‘One can do only four things with material’, is my current theory I like to test with this post. Four steps apply to the majority of making processes and some aspects of these are shifting from the makers workbench to distributed digital fabrication online.

It is worthwhile to look at these shifts in more detail as the mastery of digital technologies is involved in defining contemporary craft practitioners as ‘Designer Makers’.

The four processes are:

Cutting – Forming – Fusing - Finishing

About these categories:

Many materials used by makers are available in flat, like sheet metal, fabric, glass. Traditional cutting tools such as saws, scissors, blades are used on them, while at the same time digitally controlled cutting processes like laser & water-jet cutting or CNC plasma cutting are becoming more and more accessible. Digital processes influence most significantly the first category, cutting. Just about all flat materials can be ‘fashioned’ this way, allowing the maker to achieve repeatable precision parts countless times. These technologies are still very specialised and expensive usually out of reach of the individual maker. However a growing fabber network will bring these tools closer to the workshop of the individual maker.

The forming is still mostly in the hands of the crafts practitioner with digital 3 dimensional processes only on the periphery and used in niche applications. Once cut to size, many materials are traditionally formed through impact like the use of hammers or with the help of heat, steam or formed into and over molds. Rabid prototyping is a representing the digital fabrication for this category. For example in contemporary jewelery very detailed 3D wax or polymer prints are used to achieve –  once cast in metal – very unique results.

The third category, fusing, relies heavily on the skilled work of the maker and no influence of any digital technology in this category is evident. All crafts have developed processes of combining materials either two of the same kind or as a mix of different materials. Some are permanent while others can be separated again. These fusing processes include welding, gluing, riveting, stitching, bolting.

Finishing: the treatment of the works surface is typically one of the last steps in the making process, while adding significant value to the finished object, it is time consuming.  Many of the finishing processes are completed by hand. However an increasing number of digital and computer controlled processes are relevant to this category such as digital printing on fabric, laser engraving. Some of the finishing processes are mechanical or chemical and can include techniques such as engraving, polishing, printing, anodizing, lacquering.

Digital fabrication has without doubt much to offer for contemporary craft practice and over time will get more important for the contemporary designer maker. By becoming more accessible digital fabrication has the potential to contribute significantly across the entire making processes.

To integrate these technologies with traditional tools the maker has to add the required digital skills to the tool set as well. Just about all cutting processes I mentioned are based on the ability to generate vector based drawings. These would require a basic knowledge of a software such as Illustrator.

To address rapid prototyping processes, one has to master a CAD program first. Typically this requires a much steeper learning curve until one is able to create a well-formed 3D computer model. However non of these skills can’t be learned (or taught for that matter).

Together with an increasingly fast, accessible internet and more user friendly web 2 services, digital fabrication is ready to be explored creatively.

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3 Responses to “All you can do with materials”


  1. 1 Lana 23/06/2010 at 8:53 AM

    I think this is a very interesting guideline for you to follow, but completely makes sense with the type of work you do. As a painter, I believe we too have simple rules to follow. Instead of cutting, I would layout what I want painted. Sort of a sketch .of the image I have imagined. I would use forming as well, but with a paint brush or still if I wasn’t done sketching. I would fuse the paint colors together. And of course I would make up my finishing touches. I guess it works for more than one type of medium!

  2. 2 annmarieshillito 11/08/2010 at 12:34 AM

    It is true that up until recently ‘to address rapid prototyping processes, one has to master a CAD program first….. requires a much steeper learning curve’ and yes They can be learnt and taught. This curve is the issue for designer makers/applied artists as it takes too much time away from the main hands-on element of making. Gilbert, you remember the haptic (virtual 3D touch) sketch/ modelling system we demonstrated at the Crafts Conference in Aberdeen and you tried here in Edinburgh? This has developed into a very affordable (£500 for software and haptic device!), easy to learn and use 3D modelling package. It is not CAD – it sits between 2D sketching / 3D modelling and CAD – many in the creative sector don’t need the many functions, features and complexity of CAD packages. And our software (Cloud9) gives direct access to 3D printing. The website that has videos of version 1 (version2 released in June) to show what it is like is at http://www.anarkikangels.co.uk. Love to get all your responses on this.

    • 3 virtualterritory 12/08/2010 at 11:11 AM

      Dear Ann Marie,
      thank you for your comment. I certainly will check the link to your software and hope to get a set up soon. Your system is certainly affordable. I must admit I did not mention haptic feedback systems in this post about what can be done to materials. These systems could sit within the ‘forming’ chapter although only ‘virtual’ material is formed by them which separates these from any of the other making stages based on the use of real material. I guess this puts haptic feedback for CAD right in front of the making – the design stage. The challenge then will be for the designer/maker to ‘project’ their skill and experience of real-world materials and processes onto the objects they creating and ‘touching’ with force-feedback. As educators we should address this challenge by linking these digital tools to the relevant and appropriate digital fabrication processes to make meaningful and new ‘craft’ works. I think we all have seen enough laser cut coasters.
      Cheers Gilbert


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