Can We Be Replaced?

Is Technology a Threat?

As technology improves and machinery becomes more affordable, many people feel threatened – they fear that they are being replaced and will one day be unnecessary.  In the world of woodworking, the machine of primary threat is the CNC router.

What is a CNC Machine, Really?

I do not feel threatened.  First of all, I see CNC machinery as just another tool that excels at certain tasks, just like every other tool.  And, just like every other tool, CNC machinery has weaknesses – the primary downside being, I believe, the required set-up time for an operation.  For large scale production, the set-up time is a small price to pay for the efficiency the machine provides.

Can Machines Really Replace People?

The work that I do, and the ways that I work, does not lend itself well to mass production.  Each step requires careful consideration, mindful decisions and skilled, practiced movements to execute and there are numerous chances to turn all that hard work into firewood.  Also, sculptural elements are difficult, if not impossible, to produce on most machinery.

Even if there is a machine that can make those decisions and shape and assemble wood as I do, it is still missing one thing that I can offer – the fact that it was made with care and love by me.

One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men.  No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man. – Elbert Hubbard

(You can find this quote, along with many other interesting quotes about woodwork, art, and craft on my page, Quotables).

Bonus Resources

e-David is a robot that paints one stroke at a time, constantly analyzing its progress.  Paintings are not completely controlled by the programmer – the robot apparently makes decisions as well as using a visual optimization process.

David Pye’s book, The Nature and Art of Workmanship (ISBN 978-0713689310), explores the concept of “workmanship of risk” and the value of skilled hand work.  I recommend reading this book.

3 thoughts on “Can We Be Replaced?

  1. Great topic. I have two observations:

    1. Sometimes it doesn’t matter whether or not the machine equals the craftsman. It’s whether someone THINKS that it does. That is when the person is replaced with the machine. I saw this happen with my father (a photographer), as well as in graphic design. As point and shoot cameras became more and more popular, there was less and less work for my father. In my own life, as graphics programs became more and more accessible to the average person, businesses would just buy the program, and not higher the designer.

    I still think that the person is superior to the machine. But if others just THINK that they can do as good of a job as a professional, they are less willing to higher a professional.

    2. A CNC machine is not what worries me, it’s the 3D printer that does. They will become better and better, and be able to work with more and more materials. If they can have a 3D printer make a human ear, I’m sure one that makes things out of wood fibers will be soon on it’s way if it doesn’t exist already.

    I refer back to point #1. It’s people’s perceptions that is important. On Etsy – supposedly once a place for handmade things – I saw in the handmade section something that was printed on a 3D printer. They were wonderful 3D skulls that were printed to look like they were intricate fretwork. As objects, they were great. But they weren’t “handmade”. They were programmed into the computer, and printed on a 3D printer. That is not handmade to me, but many people on the site – including the maker obviously – thought of this as handmade, and I fear this is the way the world is going, where the idea is more important than the how it is made.

    With all of that said, there will always be people – makers and customers – that will know what handmade is, what it requires, and its value.

  2. I think it is possible that the true professional woodworker(on a large scale) may be replaced one day. I think woodworking as a hobby has absolutely nothing to worry about and in fact, if you subscribe to the anarchist/artisan movement, that should be a blessing. The real and true artisan that so many admire was very rarely a professional, but a farmer who woodworked in his home shop to make furniture for his home and not for sale. That day may come again, though the artisan will just as likely be a salesman, doctor, electrician, or soldier rather than be exclusive to farmers. At least that is my take on it.
    Bill

  3. Manufacturers will adapt any and all machinery in order to increase production and get their product to the masses at a reasonable price. People will still seek out the craftsmen who builds with integrity and heart.

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