Frequently Asked Questions Part 5 – Is CAD Taking Away Jobs?

14 November, 2012

“They’re Taking Our Jobs!”

Even after all these years, it seems some rhetoric refuses to go away. While my colleagues and I get asked slightly less often than we used to about whether we think jewellery CAD destroys jobs, we still do get asked the same questions over and over again:

  • “Isn’t CAD killing handmade jobs?”
  • “Won’t CAD mean the end of handmade manufacturing?”
  • “Isn’t CAD just a lazy way of handling handmade manufacturing?”

There are two different answers I normally give to the above questions…

1 – Tools Change, But Workflow Doesn’t

The first answer relates to the jewellery manufacturing process. For this, I’ll illustrate two different manufacturing processes side by side:

Traditional Handmade Design Process

  1. Commission is taken from client
  2. Design is hand-drawn, and shown to client
  3. Approved design is made in metal, either with wax carving or direct fabrication
  4. Any parts made in wax are cast into metal
  5. Design is finished by hand, and set
  6. Design is given to client

CAD/CAM Design Process

  1. Commission is taken from client
  2. Design is hand-drawn, and shown to client
  3. Approved design is made using CAD and printed into wax
  4. Wax is cast into metal
  5. Design is assembled and finished by hand, and set
  6. Design is given to client

One thing immediately apparent about these two is how similar they are. But even more interesting to notice is that neither process is completely automated. Both require a human being to start and finish the process, and also have people operating and controlling the machines in the middle.

This relates back to an old saying among engineers: “A machine is only as smart as its user.” Without the skilled workers working and overseeing over every process, the pieces will not be made properly. This not only requires training just as much as any traditional jeweller, but also requires the same sort of knowledge possessed by a goldsmith or diamond mounter.

2 – This Has Happened Before

Technologies change, but the skills required do not.

Which brings me to my second answer, which is an anecdote from the history of printing and typography.

For centuries, printing companies relied on interchangeable letters carved out of metal (called moveable type) for the creation of publications such as newspapers or books. The art of typography was based upon the ability of designers to learn how to perfectly hand draw individual characters which were then cut into metal for these printing presses. Then some time in the 1960’s, new automated technologies based around the personal computer appearing to speed up the printing processes. This technology meant that all the work of typographical drawing could now be done on a computer, and these new mechanical “printers” could generate images nearly as quickly and far more cheaply as the old moveable type machines. Workers in the printing industry were terrified that these new tools would make their old ways of working extinct, and take their jobs with them.

As it happened, these workers were able to learn to use the new tools more easily than they thought. In fact, the new computer tools were not only designed based on their existing ways of working, but even used the same terminology, and each successive version of the software incorporated their feedback into better ways of working. If anything, their old knowledge proved a strong asset in this new medium of working, and with the newly found speed of workflow, they were able to start experimenting and getting creative like never before. And so, not only did the old jobs did not die out, the creative freedom these workers now had increased.

CAD is an Additional Tool, Not a Shortcut

CAD for jewellery and product design follows much the same pattern and mindset as this transition into modern typography. It has opened up the door to affordable bespoke design and greater sophistication in product design like never before. Rather than taking away jobs, it has taken these old skills and given them more dynamic and mobile ways of working.

Conversely, CAD is most definitely not a short cut for learning how to draw and make jewellery properly. Contrary to popular misconception, you still need to know how to draw and make jewellery before you can use CAD.

Further reading: The History of Printing

(This post is part of my series of Frequently Asked Questions. See the rest of the FAQ pages.)


Jack Meyer

Bespoke jewellery designer, and specialist in jewellery CAD/CAM and emergent technologies that affect jewellery.

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