Will technology save manufacturing? The subtitle of the Design Museum's major new show, The Future is Here, implies a positive response. We are on the edge of a 'new industrial revolution,' it proclaims, offering up the methods and means that will take us into a post-industrial age.
The relationship between the crunchy old analogue world of manufacturing and the seamless visions of the digital realms has become pretty blurred, as more and more ways emerge to translate the virtual into the physical realm. This new show suggests that a coming age of tech-driven, low volume manufacturing can kickstart a revolution in making and buying, one in which 'the boundaries between designer, maker and consumer are disappearing.'
Curator Alex Newson has done an excellent job of compiling a snapshot of a particular moment in time. The work on display is beautiful, subdivided into various zeitgeisty categories like digital fabrication, sustainability, closed loop design, crowdsourcing; a vogueishly cardboard installation, by dRMM is tough, tactile and utterly suited to the content. The graphics too are deft, functional and elegant, thanks to the involvement of LucienneRoberts+.
A key part of the exhibition is the 'Future is Here Factory,' a collection of 3D printers set up to allow visiting designers to produce ultra-short runs of objects, which in turn will be available to exhibition visitors to assemble and buy. It seems you can't visit a contemporary design show anywhere in the world without hearing the adenoidal whine of a 3D printer, slowly churning out some small chalky piece of dubious product design - here's hoping the DM's audience will make a difference. However, these are still machines for the workshop, not the kitchen work surface (although British high street electronics company Maplin recently ventured into home 3D printing.
'The Future Is Here' carries with it an oxymoronic undercurrent of wistful nostalgia, a longing for a tomorrow that is perpetually just out of reach, forever promising a transformation but never quite achieving it. Yes, the products are great. Yes, the technology is changing fast. But the thing that brings both together has yet to materialise. The first wave of 3D printing, routing and crowd-sourced thinking represents an advance party of pure creativity, but is it destined to sink below a deluge of mediocrity once the technology hits the mainstream?
The core belief in the power of technology to solve any problem at a stroke is also slightly jarring. High-end industry - the robots of KUKA, Tesla's factory, Lexus' carbon fibre weaving, Puma's biodegradable shoes - sits alongside ersatz, small-scale projects. The Makie Doll, a bespoke 3D printed toy (a kind of Build-a-Bear for grown-ups, list price £70) stands in stark contrast to the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 aero engine (list price $17m). It's hard to draw parallels beyond the fact that both use intensive, computer-aided manufacture.
The shift in focus from raw materials to the methods used to translate them into 'designed' objects leaves many other questions unanswered. Someone will still have to manufacture the vast quantities of plywood required for this brave new flat pack future - a material that requires immense heat, pressure and, usually, highly toxic formaldehyde-based glues, not to mention vast factories, infrastructure and energy.
What is important is prototyping and design development, and technology compresses timescales and eases production like never before. Will it, as the exhibition implies, transform Britain's fortunes to a new golden age of manufacture? In this particular case, the magic bullet of technology is a blast of free-market freethinking that could ultimately disenfranchise designers rather than empower them.
We've been here before. What is Wallpaper*'s groundbreaking Handmade exhibition if it isn't an exploration of how design, craft and technology are changing the shape of how we define manufacturing, customisation and the bespoke object? Innovation and technology have a purpose - they are a means to an end. But just because you can bring anything to market doesn’t mean you should: curation and creation are two arts that are frequently confused.
'The Future is Here' throws up many fascinating case studies and many beautiful objects. But ultimately it doesn't offer a realistic economic foundation for this new age of self-contained manufacturing beyond the sound bite statement that innovation will always prevail.