Technology has always been a big part of my life. I remember my family bought a computer when I was just 6 years old. It came in a big box that reminded me of a cow (for those of you who don’t remember, Gateway was a very popular brand back then and their trademark was the black and white spotted box). Not too long after I was introduced to the PC, cell phones exploded into the market, then mp3 players, smart phones, tablets, etc. I found all the new technology spilling into society immensely interesting. As I got older, I made a conscious effort to surround myself with different types of technology beyond consumer devices, and to include myself in discussions about technological innovation and how it would come to shape our world. I didn’t notice it at the time, but those discussions about technology were always in reference to the future; people would constantly talk about how technology would change our lives in the coming years or generations. It wasn’t until I started working at NextFab that I began to realize that while it does make sense to talk about technological innovations and its implications for the future, amazing technologies can also put the past into perspective.
In college, I settled on a Mechanical Engineering program at Penn where I had the opportunity to explore technologies used in fabrication and manufacturing. I started to use CAD programs, 3D printers, and CNC machines to name just a few. Following graduation, I came to NextFab, where I really started to appreciate how much technology aids in the making of our world. I enthusiastically learned about the ShopBot, 3D scanners that create triangular meshes, MIG and TIG welding, and much more. It was, and still is, so amazing to me that a piece of technology like the ShopBot can take a stack of flat wood or foam sheets and turn it into a 13 foot sculpture with relatively little physical work needed from the operator (quite a bit of mental work and expertise goes into programming and running the ShopBot software). As I learned more and more, I found myself thinking about how challenging it had to have been to make something before all this great technology came into being.
This is where technology really puts the past into perspective. I mean, once upon a time people didn’t have the technology we have all come to love and rely on. Woodworkers, metalworkers, sculptors, etc. of the 18th and 19th centuries certainly didn’t have things like CAD, CAM, ShopBots or Haas CNC mills; CNC didn’t even exist for that matter. When somebody wanted to make something with challenging geometry or complex curves back then, they had to make it by hand. They couldn’t just do a little bit of CAD work, generate some g-code, and have a big honkin’ machine spit out their precision part in 4 hours. They had to sketch out their designs with painstaking detail, and then they had to use their own two hands to fabricate it. It took time… lots of time. It also took craftsmanship and skill that people don’t necessarily need in today’s technologically advanced world. I’m a great example. I am terrible at drawing, but that’s ok because I’m pretty decent at SolidWorks and can come up with a great looking, perfectly symmetrical part in the program in no time at all. I consider myself lucky to be a part of this technology savvy generation because, frankly, I wouldn’t have made the cut back when this stuff didn’t exist. It’s really inspiring to think that there were people out there who could still make quality work without the aid of the technologies I’ve mentioned above. People like Leonardo Davinci, Filippo Brunelleschi, and Auguste Rodin still made amazingly robust and beautiful structures, pieces of art, devices, and so on without the help of the technology that I need to make anything worthwhile.
In conclusion, yes, what we can create now with the aid of technology is incredible…but what we, as a people, were able to make before the implementation of these technologies is even more incredible. Even though society didn’t always have super tools like SolidWorks, CNC machines, 3D scanners, 3D printers, laser cutters, and the like, impressive feats of art and engineering were still created and have withstood the test of time. So next time you spark up a conversion about a brand new technology and what it means for the future, take a moment to appreciate what was possible in the past - take a moment to reflect on the skill and craftsmanship that used to rule the world of making and appreciate the artists, designers, and engineers that existed in that world without any of the technologies we routinely use today.