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The high-tech craftsman and the craft workshop with 3D printers

Making things by hand is an ancient art. A more sophisticated approach is to use new technologies such as computers and 3D printers. Some, such as Aldo Bonomi, an Italian sociologist who studies the more innovative aspects of the culture of enterprise, would say it’s a question of craftsmen versus “smanettoni” (loosely translated: “computer geeks”). Had he been speaking in English, he might have used the term “makers”. The future of Italian industry may lie right here, in saving, rebuilding and re-launching craftsmanship through technology, whether in be in mechanics or fashion, interior design or ceramics, construction or cuisine – in other words, in all of those industries in which Italian tradition and modernity come together in a unique synthesis of past and future and where a culture of enterprise based on know-how, doing good and creating wealth can thrive.

So a sort of incubator, a workshop  brought to life by a collection of digital devices. A journey through the “open-source” world of new technologies to design a piece of furniture or a mechanical component and then produce it using a what is known as a “3D printer”, able to create one-of-a-kind, custom pieces or limited series of products. It’s a technology that could radically transform both the production of consumer products and even the most sophisticated supply chains in their entirety. And here in Italy, where innovation is traditionally adaptation and where there is a culture of quality, creativity and versatility (not to mention design), this new form of enterprise may find fertile ground in which to flourish, thereby making a key contribution to the recovery of productivity and competitiveness in Italian industry.

Brunello Cucinelli, a dynamic fashion magnate, summed it up brilliantly by emphasising craftsmanship and the goods we make and their importance in growth and the quality of living. Why? Because the works of the ironsmith or the glassblower, terracotta and fabric, and the workshops of other craftsmen have, for centuries, been the backbone of Italy. Behind every handcrafted product we see that typically Italian lifestyle that is famous throughout the world, Cucinelli says. And it’s not just nostalgia. In a few years, the modern-day craftsman will be seen as a master of his trade. Talented craftsmen, he says, will be the engineers of the future, but for this to happen we need to give them back their financial dignity. A craftsman deserves the wage of an engineer.

This rediscovery of craftsmanship is the result of a broader cultural trend, one which starts from an acknowledgement of crisis of the “paper economy”, of the extreme financialisation of the end of the 20th century and the start of this century, and of the importance of getting back to manufacturing and to the real economy. In 2008, just as we were seeing the first cracks in the giant financial pyramids of derivatives and the economy based on the illusion of speculation and chains of debt was wearing thin, one of the greats of American sociology, Richard Sennett, published “The Craftsman” (published in the UK by Penguin), a seminal work that marked a return to the material and moral importance of manufacturing by reassessing labour and connecting it with the opportunities made possible by new technology. Old and new brought together by hand and mind, technique and  creativity. “Today’s craft workshop is the small business,” says Sennett.

“Futuro artigiano” (Loosely translated: “A future of craftsmen”), by Stefano Michilli, is a nice book that explains how innovation is in the hands of Italians and, placing particular emphasis on the experience of the Italian northeast, identifies the keys to recovery for Italian manufacturing. Tradition and innovation (in the world of craftsmanship) and an ability to adapt to change and interpret new trends with creativity and quality. Manufacturing for the 21st century.