It’s a fascinating time to be a creative: Traditional crafts and skills are coming back into vogue at the same time that hundreds of novel uses for technology are being pioneered and made available to everyone. As the digital and physical worlds converge, blurring the line between old-school craft and new-school tech, there are a lot of exciting possibilities for physical makers to expand their horizons by learning how to integrate or augment their work with digital tools.
The most obvious way to merge the digital and physical is by 3D printing, which literally takes a digital creation and brings it to physical form. If you’re unfamiliar with how it works, a 3D printer deposits small amounts of a physical substrate (like plastic or metal) much the same way that a traditional printer deposits ink. The 3D printer, however, repeats this process over many layers, allowing the creation of a physical object in three dimensions.
Existing makers can integrate the technology into their own practice — imagine, for instance, being able to model and print a prototype of a project before committing to rendering it fully in your chosen material. A sculptor, for instance, may want to model their creation in inexpensive plastic before carving it in an expensive medium like stone or casting it in metal.
Even if you don’t have any intention of producing a physical model using 3D printing, learning to use digital modeling software can save you huge amounts of time and material waste in the shop. Knowing exactly what you’re going to make, how it fits together and, perhaps most crucially, having precise measurements generated by the computer, makes every aspect of your craft easier.
This is especially true for industrial and product designers who may be working on complex shapes, products with many parts or working in a huge variety of media. Planning your project from start to finish and generating a 3D model takes a lot of the hassle out of the process and gives you images you can share with clients for approval or as a part of a digital portfolio.
Automation and microcontrollers
Another technology that’s becoming increasingly common is the use of sensors, microcontrollers and tiny computers (like Raspberry Pi) to create interactive objects and add smart functionality to traditional crafting. Computer-controlled movement and automation of objects is not new to the world of theater, for instance. But the development of relatively powerful, relatively low-cost options like Arduino and Raspberry Pi are making this kind of technology available to makers on a budget, no matter what your field.
Learning a little about how to use these technologies will help you expand your creative palette and open a new world of possibilities into your craft.
Augmented reality — the layering of digital images over a view of the physical world (as on a smartphone, for example) provides a lot of interesting possibilities for all kinds of makers. While visual artists and illustrators may be familiar with software for illustrating or drawing on the computer, augmented reality technology offers a whole new way for them to interact with the physical world or to work on custom projects with other makers. A mixed-media artist could, for instance, produce a sculpture, collage or other physical work that can then be overlaid with an illustrated component when viewed through a smartphone app.
Installation artists could similarly work with their venue to create interactive elements available in augmented reality. Some designers and programmers are already using augmented reality to increase the immersiveness of tabletop games.
If you’re a sculptor, a welder or a designer of any kind, there may be digital tools that can take your trade or hobby to the next level. That could mean creating miniature scale prototypes, or enabling automation and moving parts by using a microcontroller like Arduino. The best thing about tools is that they’re not an end product — they make new ideas possible and enable you to pursue them.
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