Sense of Touch

September 17, 2014

By Duncan Thieme

In his recent blog post, Andrew Thies points out that machines used for digital fabrication have no sense of touch, and therefore can't begin to match the ability of a skilled craftsman to adapt to the irregularities of a real piece of material-the machines limited to relatively repetitive operations using very regular pieces of material.

I wonder how much longer this will be true. There are lots of very smart people working how to design machines that complete complex tasks in an irregular world. Cars will drive themselves around, probably more safely than people can. Airplanes will fly and land themselves, adapting all the while to the weather around them. My father-in-law recently had heart surgery performed by small robotic tools controlled remotely by his surgeons. Apple's new smart watch will apparently know how hard a finger presses on its screen.

Machines are developing a sense of touch, and this will open up new possibilities for the making of physical objects. There is a dark side to this. Surely part of the effect will be that some skilled craftspeople who are indispensable today will be replaced by machines. One could easily imagine masons, concrete finishers, drywall tapers and the like all being replaced by robots that work all day producing passable work for no pay. This has certainly already happened to other building trades. Finish carpentry is now a dying thing, having been eclipsed almost entirely by cabinet making that is done by CNC machines and workers that assemble their products like so many kits from IKEA.

The challenge to architects is to harness the tools that will emerge to creative advantage. As a profession, we've been complacent about new fabrication technologies, allowing suppliers to take the lead. The predictable result is a parade of products that use new techniques to make the same old things. It seems to me that we owe it to ourselves and to the trades to use our new tools better.

When the robot masons eventually come to our job sites, they will be able to stack bricks perfectly in any pattern imaginable. If all we ask of them is to make endless rows of running bond, we will have lost a great opportunity, and done a real disservice to generations of human masons.

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Duncan Thieme

AIA, LEED AP

Principal