Technology push

Paul Woodward
9th December 2016 at 16:59

Subject Genius, Paul Woodward, Technology push

The subject of this week’s blog is not as you might expect from the title as I am not really the sort of person to recite curriculum material. While I am sure we are all aware of the concepts of technology push and market pull in the world of design and manufacture, what I want to address is the continuing push of technology in the classroom and how this might compare to the market needs for the use of such technology.

Let’s start with that most basic of technology in the workshop, presuming we discount drawing implements; the hand tool. Now it may not be technological in the sense of electrically powered or computer controlled but the humble hand tool has been the means of creating objects for thousands of years. Even for the best part of the 20th century, the hand tool has served the subject well and still provides a means of working with materials in situations where there is no power or simply where a hand tool will suffice.

Within the curriculum there are several items of equipment or processes that have become common place within D&T departments despite the use of them in industry being very different to their use in the classroom. Take for example the use of a CNC lathe. Fewer students are learning how to use a centre or wood lathe yet departments often have access to a CNC lathe where the skill being learnt is how to draw a CAD model that will be reproduced by a machine. These machines, often operated by technicians, require little or no experience of the manual process of setting up a lathe or how to operate them manually.   

The CNC router replaces the milling machine; an expensive and increasingly scarce piece of machinery, and the plunge router which, in some schools, has been a prohibited piece of machinery for some time. Again, there is no connection between hand and material, just the knowledge of how to create a 2D or 3D object so the software can interpret the cuts in X, Y and Z. If you can draw it within the work volume, you can press a button and have the CNC machine cut it out.

The laser cutter in the wrong hands is little more than a glorified stencil cutter and engraving machine. It costs many thousands of pounds yet cannot cut wood without burning the edge nor can it remove pockets of material effectively; it's even dangerous to use with certain materials! For many years it was the holy grail of D&T departments given its huge expense and I am sure there are some that still don't have one. Once purchased, projects are quickly developed to make use of the equipment but shouldn't it be the other way round?

The 3D printer despite being the most recent advancement in terms of classroom technology is actually the most accessible in terms of size and cost and one that genuinely deserves a space on your worktop. Here is a machine that could be used in the homes and offices of the future with a reasonable set up cost and relatively easy maintenance. It is one of the few machines in the department that serves a design purpose as well as manufacturing; it allows you to see and manipulate a real 3D object from a CAD model in a relatively short timeframe effectively allowing a creative process to remain continuous and offer a true iterative process making numerous prototype parts. Yet, last week, when my boss asked me to look at one with a £20000 budget, I couldn't find one that would be big enough nor could I really see the justification for its purpose other than being a 'really cool bit of kit' to make models of parts before tooling or moulding the real thing.

What these machines do attempt to replicate from an industrial point of view is the ability to (re)produce an item quickly, accurately and in large numbers. Batch processing basically, although 3D printers have a long way to go before they print out objects as quickly as we churn out printed paper.

Long time readers of this blog will know I am an advocate of technology in the classroom and beyond and I am being a little mischievous today but at the same time I do believe in using technology for a purpose not simply because it's there and needs to justify its cost. We managed perfectly well before 3D printers and laser cutters and I am sure many innovative design educators still do.   

In industry the technology is very large and expensive but it is bought as it does the job required effectively. Where other specialist services are required they are usually contracted out so, while I have access to 14 metre by 3 metre CNC machine, we contract out laser cut sheet metal and brackets, GRP moulds and rely on specialist upholsterers for their skills. There is no extraneous technology in production; it all has to justify its purchase by being essential for the job.

My point is simply that the modern D&T workshop doesn't always prepare students for life in the real world of manufacture and designers rarely get to use the machinery anyway, but more concerning is the way design projects are based around the use of a technology rather than using a technology to realise the design.

Take a look at your own department, presuming you are fortunate enough to have a wide range of technology, and ask how many technological items were bought because they looked interesting, were fashionable (or a syllabus prerequisite) at the time, or you simply had an idea for how you could base a project around their use. Maybe you have a nice functional workshop or are in the ever decreasing minority of well funded departments who can 'experiment' with new technologies but the sad reality is that shrinking budgets will mean that laser cutters, 3D printers and 5 axis CNC machines will remain elusive to many.

But I wonder; does the lack of cutting edge technology simply make design teachers more resourceful and creative with the technology they do have? After all, austerity really does encourage innovation.



Paul taught design and technology for 23 years in a range of schools with stints as HOD and Head of a creative arts faculty as well as teaching art, ICT, photography and media studies. He is currently taking a break from education to return to the design industry.

His Subject Genius blog was shortlisted for the 2016 TES Awards.