Industrial design’s need for speed
There is an ideal, in industrial design (at least from a consideration of the production end of things), of achieving great efficiency. One ma-terial, one process. As an example, we take some material and hit it with a tool. Bang! And we’re done. I have a small collection of metal bottle openers that represent this, at least in theory: they could have been punched out in one go. I admire their cleverness and what they represent: the ability to make a tool and fulfill a need, so expeditiously. If industrial design is about utilizing industry to meet needs, and the more the better, then this achievement is very attractive.
Going way back
It’s hardly new. Many pre-industrial artefacts represent this: arrow heads (one material) knapped to shape (one process). Pure, but labour-intensive. Baskets are another. One material: fibres, and one process: weaving. Again, this is labour intensive, but technologically accessible to many. And the results can be very impressive. I’m thinking of the cassava root juice extractors that I’ve seen in Colombia. It’s a kind of basket that wrings the toxic juice out of the tuber, by exerting great compressive pressure on it. A basket that you pull while it’s attached to a tree and it compresses contents in the cleverest way. Stress relievers in electric cables act the same way. It’s worth the intensive labour.
Ceramics is a material that is very amenable to this kind of cleverness. Take the mud while at the right consistency and press (or cast) it into a mould. Presto, you’ve got a pot or an oil lamp or any number of other useful things that may only need to be stuck into the oven for the right amount of time. If we disregard, for the moment, the trouble of turning rocks into metals, the refined metals are very suitable to an immediacy of production. Punch, press, fold, forge or whatever you need and the plasticity of the material will give you a useful form. The product is ready to ship.
Wood, in contrast, has been referred to as the slow craft. There are not too many ways to quickly turn it into a product. This may be why woodworkers tend to be more methodical: their practice dictates this approach. One of the charms of moulded plywood is that it more closely approaches industrial efficiency.
More recently and now with great public exposure is the phenomena of rapid prototyping. The premise is one of great and democratic efficiency. A clever machine will excrete or otherwise produce a small quantity of strategically-placed plastic, predetermined by a computer program. Ultimately, there is an incremental build-up of this plastic and an object is created. One material (thermoplastic) and one process (deposition of material according to mathematical coordinates).
Of course, behind this reality is a great complexity and most of the social and physical realities of our contemporary world get involved. Oil must be extracted before the resin can be made into the plastics. Electricity must be generated in some way. Rare earths must be mined in the far corners of the globe to provide the computer capabilities and so on.
Sky is the limit
Despite this, this clever way of making things is becoming the refuge of the do-it-your-self-er, and a way to sidestep the marketing-industrial complex’s incursions into our lives. Independence at last. All we need is a computer, some skill with the programs and the prototyping machine. Then we can custom-make our eyeglasses, our shoes, and maybe even our teeth. If we expand this approach, the range of materials used and increase the scale, we can build our furniture and our houses. We can build our bicycles and even make our guns, undetectable by airport x-rays.
This represents a very interesting future for us. At this point, a lot of what is done this way seems to be kind of silly. But that is how often how progress is achieved: via the garbage can. We try this and that and eventually we find a real use for our new toys and then they are not toys anymore. Many people are putting good thought to it and some of them are my smart students who actually represent the future. They will figure this out. And good for them. As could be said: this train has left the station. Keep your eyes open; we’re going for a ride.
Paul Epp is professor at OCAD University and chair of its Industrial Design Department.