I was recently talking to a friend about 3-D printing and explained the theory that the technology, driven by shared software designs and relatively easily transportable raw materials, could lead to the re-localization of manufacture. He mentioned the irony that advanced industrialization could support a physical relationship between manufacture and residency that more closely reflects pre-industrial societies. He seemed to be charmed, as well, by the move from mass production to mass customization.
The image of locally-manufactured, customized products does seem to have some romance. In that sense, a sort of boomerang effect is apparent. Other aspects of this process may be more linear, however: For instance, one way to view a potential future move to 3-D manufacturing is from production-multiplying machines to design-multiplying machines. That is to say, the 19th and 20th century factory multiplied the number of products that could be produced successfully from one design, and the 3-D, software-driven manufacturing process of the 21st century will, through software-supported guidance, multiply the number of designs that can be produced successfully from one thinker. Another way to conceptualize the process is that 3-D printing allows the designer to distribute the manufacture of her product across a wide network of sites. In that sense, the production could be taking place on an even more massive scale, just not all in one place. So, production occurs at an increasingly great scale, and design is occurring to increasing scale as well. In these senses, there is no romantic reversion to the interaction of the individual craftsman with the individual production elements, and no reversion to the relatively isolated interaction between a workshop and its surrounding community.
The product itself may very well be individualized/customized but the infrastructure of ideation/design/production is pretty clearly supported by interventions of the ‘crowd.’ Of course, once this is said, we are reminded of the fact that even early craftsmen were supported by the ideas, methods, and tools of their fellows. What will be different in the future is that the speed of such interactive support will be so great that it will not be easily forgotten, while the image of the isolated, creative craftsmen may have seemed more believable in earlier times.
The romantic conceptualization of the individual craftsman may only last as long as the age of centralized, mass production lasts. A future age of customized manufacture supported by distributed networks may force us to temper the lofty image of individualized genius that itself may currently serve as a counterpoint to our mass society.