Divided by six thousand

Time is money, and accuracy demands time. This may not sound like a thought that we don’t know, but yet most often than not fail to realize that we live in a world where most things are not at not perfectly accurate. No, I’m not talking about journalism, I’m talking parts making and design.

In production we have four levels of tolerances ranging from very rough to very fine. Very rough is essentially things just done to get them finished without any care about the end quality as the maximum tolerances are around ±1mm. 1mm does not sound a lot, yet depending on the spot that margin of error can really make all the differences. For something like tractor, where you have a lot of parts that are under dire stress, the accuracy isn’t all that vital. As long as it works. Certain medical equipment on the other hand are required to be at certain size to the thousandth of a millimetre at most for the sake of the patient.

A craftsman who works with machines by hand has to gain rather large amount of experience before he has the skill to truly work within the finer points of accuracy. Experience is a major factor, as the machines we work with are not accurate themselves to a degree. Double checking levels and re-adjusting alignments as needed doesn’t really cut it, that needs to be done almost every time a work is being started to make sure things are straight. Accuracy starts with prepping and planning.

Of course, the modern CNC production has made accuracy more or less self-evident to most. The machines’ movement accuracy is nearly perfect and dependent on the systems’ own measurements inside, and the setting the user’s input. A designer has his workload here to design an item that can be machined properly and consider the dimensions of the objects.

Nevertheless, even with CNC machining, the amount of steps the machine has to make to ensure proper surface with proper tolerances can go two-way. A rough milling will leave the surface with a surface that most wouldn’t like and the corners and cuts may be nearly or even outside the tolerances. Even from a machine it takes time to properly finish the item to a finer degree. Often much less than what it would take from a craftsman, and more of than not factories don’t even have individual lathes or milling machines for mass production, just for parts repairs and prototyping.

Just like when design is at its best when you don’t really notice it, accurate tolerances are something that you may notice one in a while, but take it for granted most of the time. Things just have to fit in order for them to work, and that’s how it should be.

And yes, I totally agree. However, it also has to be valued. Object accuracy, to make sure that parts just fit together, is so self-evident that we barely give any thought how important it is to our lives. It’s natural, yet the challenge to have accurate objects rises as the required accuracy goes up. Almost exponentially so. Sure, we could always finish up an item with a sandpaper and a very fine file, but that’s not really doable in modern world. Speed and efficiency have to be considered, and we don’t have the time to dilly dally to get something just perfect. This may sting your ear a bit, but good enough is satisfactory more often than not.

However, it’s also interesting to notice that most modern designers work with absolute measures rather than within tolerances to some degree. Personally I always rally for designers to work with production tools their designs will be realized with to understand the steps and methods needed to produce their design. A craftsman tends to design within or just slightly beyond his skill set to push himself just a bit further down.

If you read into this entry a bit deeper, you might notice that this is part of a theme I’ve popped up here and there; the change of traditional design and craftsmanship being more or less replaced by modern technology. That is not a negative thing in itself, that’s change and evolution. Creating a crown is traditionally thought to be work for the artisans and jewellery makers, but nowadays we have designers and machines that can objectively make better products at a lower cost than the traditional craftsmen.

However, the work these traditional craftsmen do is barely visible and only certain fields are valued to any significant extent. I’m not even sure how well people are informed what sort of job a machinist, for example, has in his hands when he gets the plans.

We live in an age where we can substitute a traditional craft with one person with one machine. Not only is it more effective and faster, but also cheaper for those very reasons. I started this post about accuracy and how it costs money, but here I’m starting to end with a thought that in the future we might not even have the requirement for those traditional crafts and accuracy has become even more mundane that what it already is.

Each craft tends to think theirs isn’t valued enough, but perhaps that’s true. Everybody should be appreciated other fields of work just as much as they value theirs. Nevertheless, a thing like being an artisan might be one of the more useless jobs in the world, in the end, as their niche of being able to produce and design products is becoming a mundane every day thing with the advent of 3D printers and machines far superior to men.

It’s not a thought I amuse lightly. The fact is that the world demands further production and better prices, and work by hand costs. Machining may not have the same spirit and individuality, but it gets things done helluva lot faster and more efficient. New tools replace the old, names and professions change, but the demands and needs don’t change too much. Work can become obsoleted by progression, unless we consciously keep it alive.

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