I was all prepared with my next blog post subject matter, and was happily collating my thoughts in the typically random order you have come to expect, when I read an article about modelmaking. More specifically, this article about modelmaking. A piece by Tanya Weaver of Develop3D charting the demise of a well respected modelmaking bureau as technology has seemingly wielded its robotic 3D Printed axe upon those poor unfortunate craftsmen.
I have been tempted to wade into the debate about the incessant march of ‘instant’ prototyping versus the ‘old school’, time served skills, but many others are doing this argument justice and suggesting that – as with most things – the success of those businesses that survive is in the adoption of new techniques to supplement the old.
No. I thought my words would be better served describing the magic of the modelmaker and how – if it weren’t for these dusty sods (said affectionately) – my career would have been found somewhere in a rather soggy drain.
I have been incredibly fortunate in my design career to date, to work in design studios that not only have astounding designers, but gob-smackingly talented modelmakers. I’m not just talking about people that are ‘pretty handy with a pillar drill and some sandpaper’, but genuinely awe-inspiring individuals who can simply create anything from anything. Admittedly they do it with a heavy dose of ‘inward breath sucking’ and often still wearing their bicycle clips, but create they do.
When I first landed a job at Kinneir Dufort in Bristol, the design studio didn’t have anything safe enough to unleash this naîve young upstart of a designer on, so for the first few weeks, I was sent downstairs to the modelmaking studio, and in particular to the vacuum casting room. I won’t bore you with the specifics of vacuum casting, but most product designers of any years will have undoubtedly seen their designs prototyped using this technique. It effectively uses a master part of some form (usually an SLA but sometimes something else), which is suspended in a cheap wooden carcass. Silicone is then poured around the master part until set and then the resultant silicone mould used to create multiple PU parts to wow and amaze your clients. Simple huh? How hard can this be?
My first job was to shadow the guys responsible for setting the master parts in the carcass. This involves suspending an often fragile, lovingly finished part in thin air in such a way as to create a perfect split line in the tool and yet leave no blemishes, marks or scuffs on the ensuing PU parts. Please remember that silicone can replicate a thumb print on a ‘car-body panel quality’ painted surface so it is remarkably unforgiving. I know how it is done. I have seen it done a hundred times. The principle is simple when haughtily describing it to clients, but I dare anyone not capable of balancing a needle on a needle to try it. Let’s just say it involves nothing more complex than some sticky tape, a glue gun and some short lengths of welding rod, but it is nigh on impossible. My most delicate of touches was the equivalent of a rhino playing golf with a medicine ball. Not good.
I still to this day, doff my hat to anyone who is capable of this!
I’d like to think of myself as a fairly capable designer. I have had the privilege of working on countless prestigious brands and products and my work – to date – seems to have courted the right kinds of noises from clients (most of the time). I can use 3D CAD. I know how stuff goes together and how it is made. I have a reasonable knowledge of materials and of how to design the right thing for the right brief. Surely, with this knowledge and the technology and software available to me, I shouldn’t need someone as antiquated and curmudgeonly as a modelmaker to realise my design ambitions? Pah!
Yes, many projects I’ve worked on have not had the budgets for modelmaking or prototyping, but by a considerable margin, the projects of which I am most proud have been the ones where I have worked in parallel with a talented modelmaker. Undoubtedly.
Let me rename them for a moment. A ‘modelmaker’ assumes that they simply translate your beautiful design into something tangible, simply making what you have told them to make. This could not be further from the truth. They are ‘fixers’…’magicians’ if you will. They take something you *think* you’ve resolved and really sort it out. Like one of those Heath Robinson machines from a Wallace & Gromit film, where something goes in at one end, lots of steam and farts emerge along the way, but the thing that pops out the other end is finely honed, lovingly crafted and ultimately resolved. That hinge which you thought you’d successfully developed in 3D CAD? They have somehow managed to make it work even though it was impossible to assemble. That ‘fine spark’ texture which has to somehow appear on every tiny surface (apart from that little surface there which I need to be VERY highly polished)? Yes, they’ve managed it, despite having to somehow get a bloody great spray gun into a crevice the size of an ant’s lunchbox.
These guys simply work magic. They are like the A-Team. No-one else could fashion a war machine out a few bed-springs and a loose toilet seat like B.A.Baracus. Similarly, no-one can manifest your pedantically fussy design prototype using only a reel of masking tape, a tiny triangular file and a dollop of P38. I would urge anyone who has never seen a true modelmaker at work, to find one and watch. Just watch. Like a brilliant card magician, everything appears normal and you think you’ve got a handle on what’s going on, but then WHAM! …something happens and you are left speechless. I’ve often maintained that most models should be seen by clients before they receive their final coats of paint – where you can see the final translation from sow’s ear to silk purse. Evidence of their brilliance. How they have managed to replicate all manner of production materials and impossible things on a lump of plywood and resin with a deft wrist and a crafty combination of paints, lacquers and some tactical buffing! I’ve seen a fabulously realistic tree made from a drainpipe and some newspaper. A tasty lemon slice made from some acrylic and some white modelling foam. But most importantly they have taken my half-arsed design suggestions and given them the requisite magic dust that has enabled me to confidently present them in front of an expectant client to the aforementioned correct noises.
Rapid prototyping (or 3D Printing) can only ever rely on the data it has as an input. If the person operating the CAD software is a numpty, the ‘thing’ that pops out of the machine will be the three dimensional ramblings of a numpty. There is little scope for that crude, iterative exploration with a person more capable than you, of sculpting your brain ooze into something wonderful.
I will always have the utmost respect for a genuinely good modelmaker and I have worked with some brilliant ones (at Kinneir Dufort, Seymourpowell, Box+Dice and more locally, ST Modelmakers). They are often softly spoken, good natured, solid people who are invariably used to having random scribbles and impossible requests thrust upon them, each time with a sage like nod and twitching fingers at the ready.
Which is why I read Tanya’s article with a sense of sadness. Modern society bays for more techno-blood. ‘We’ want things that are antiquated and old-fashioned to be replaced by shiny, clever autobots that are linked to our computer mouse. Indeed, that know what we want even before we know it ourselves. Modern modelmaking certainly has to adapt to these new technologies, and in truth, it would be virtually impossible to create a modern design prototype without some form of rapid prototyping (the phrase we used before 3D Printing came along), but the kind of iterative prototyping that comes from a semi-resolved design solution combined with a skilled modelmaker is unrivalled. That phase of a project when you need to ‘see how it feels’ or ‘check how it might work’ and the amazing realisation of form that emerges from a lump of foam or resinwood is second to none when you have the armoury of ‘modelmaking’ – not prototyping – at your disposal.
I do lament that many projects cannot justify the costs of a good modelmaker and that design projects are conveniently steered towards more CAD time and less REAL time. But that’s the situation that commercial software development and faster project leadtimes have created. We have – as an industry – pushed this beautiful part of the design process out. We’ve found quicker, slicker ways of doing the same thing, but I would argue that many products have suffered as a result. Less ‘consideration’ time. A lower appreciation of the ‘whole’. Fewer opportunities to ‘experiment’ in the earlier stages.
So there may be many reasons why the advancement of technology in modelmaking and prototyping is a good thing. I use these very advancements in our studio projects every week and find it hard to argue with the timings, costs and advantages. But I do sense that we may well look back in a few years and see that we have no options but to use this technology alone. The craftsmen, the magicians, the fixers have become operators, programmers and CAD-peeps.
I for one, will regret that moment when it arrives.