When I was a teenager consumer grade microwave ovens were beginning to appear. They were very spendy - much more than a conventional oven - so there was a need to convince people there was a deep need. They seemed to settle on the microwave as a cook-almost-everything, but do it fast, oven. A neighbor bought one and ruined expensive cuts of meat and numerous other dishes. The problem was no one looked into the physics and chemistry of cooking and specifically cooking with one of these beasts. The worst offense was the fact you couldn't create the conditions for caramelization and the Maillard reaction, but there was a problem that different foods absorbed microwaves differently and they only penetrated an inch or so. In the end it was a $500 (in 1970 money which works out to about $3,000 today) 700 watt water heater and food defroster.
The trick was realizing what the microwave was good for - reheating food and cooking certain types of frozen food, popping popcorn, and measuring the speed of light - and dropping the price by riding the penetration curve.1 They're nearly ubiquitous, but no one considers them a chef grade do-it-all tool. In the end the microwave was just a tool and a very specialized one at that. Curiously a new food industry was created just to support in and a good deal of food preparation has been outsourced in the name of convenience. There are times when compromises are made when a tool becomes ubiquitous.
A lot of people are excited by the prospect of 3d printing without much concern of what it is really useful for and how it might move past its present state. Several articles have appeared comparing it to the sewing machine and suggesting companies should look at what is currently going on in the crafting world. It probably makes sense to take a quick look at the history of the sewing machine.
Apparel and fashion are extremely interesting. They came of age with the industrial revolution, have rich social and political components, are a huge industry - $240 a year for every person on the planet at this point. It is also happens to be an industry undergoing enormous change with greater change yet to come.
The sewing machine is one of the prime enablers of mass produced apparel and it is the only major component that has resisted automation.2 Like many innovations there was a long development period - about six decades - and multiple inventions. The first practical machines offered dramatic improvements speeding up sewing from ten to one hundred times and making the process much more uniform. It became practical to make clothing in the home rather than just mend it. Unlike the 3d printer, it arrived on the market with a killer job to be done. Households realized they needed it. The early Singers happened to be very expensive, but clever marketing and financing campaigns made them a fixture in American households.
The sewing machine didn't appear in a vacuum. The cotton gin was developed in the late 1790s making industrial scale cotton production practical. This brought slavery back in a huge way creating an enormous cotton production in the Southern states. About the same time the English launched into the development and perfection of high quality fabric manufacture using power looms largely driven by water or steam power. By the time the sewing machine arrived on the scene high quality and inexpensive fabric was within the reach of the people who bought sewing machines.
Taking a two dimension piece of fabric, cutting it into appropriate shapes in such a way that it will fit someone after the pieces are sewn together is anything but a trivial exercise. The traditional process, something still used in the bespoke world, was only for extremely skilled people who taken years to learn the tricks of the trade. As a result clothing for anyone but the wealthy didn't fit very well and tended to be expensive. Around the mid 1860s Ebenezer Butternick started selling cardboard patterns for children's and women's clothing. The innovation that made his fortune was his use of grading - making the patterns in a variety of sizes that scaled from a base size. Using them average sewing machine users could make clothing that was close enough to fitting and skilled users could tailor the final result. Several competitors appeared on the scene within a decade and women's fashion magazines with ordering information for the latest patterns began to appear. By the early 1900s Butternick ran the largest publishing plant in the US. In the 50s they bought a name you've probably heard of - Vogue.
Three elements had come together - desirable and inexpensive materials, a home fabrication machine that could efficiently produce good results with modest skills, and the rapid growth of inexpensive design that could fit a wide range of human sizes and shapes. Personalized home fabrication took off like wildfire.
As the US emerged from depression and WWII homemade clothing began to drop in popularity. Commercial clothing was dropping in price to the point where it usually wasn't worth the effort and marketing was improving. Sewing as a hobby and home business continued on a reduced scale, but sewing skills were now largely used for mending. Clothing prices started to drop dramatically in the 80s as shipping containers made it practical for third world production and fast low quality disposable fashion emerged.
Home sewing is largely a hobby at this point, but it has been making a modest comeback driven by the slow fashion movement that is appearing mostly among millennials.3 This growth has been cited as a model for 3d printing -- I think that is a mistaken notion. The home sewing machine is a tool - a tool with a well understood purpose and enormous flexibility. It is becoming desirable in some leading edge parts of popular culture and is inexpensive. Designs are easy to obtain and modify and advanced amateurs can make their own. The notion of copyright on apparel in the US allows an enormous amount of unencumbered design flexibility. Wonderful materials - those with the right sensoaesthetic qualities - are available from around the world. It is possible for amateurs to make pieces that will delight.
We're a way's off from the delight level in 3d printing - unless you are into 3d action figures, making prototypes or other items where material quality and cost is not terribly important. 3d printing is a very important tool in some niches, but it is just that - nothing more than tool without a clear sense of a general purpose killer job to be done.
1 OK - maybe measuring the speed of light with a microwave is unusual. I set up a demonstration for my physics for premeds course when I was a grad student. I put chocolate in a microwave oven and ran it for about a minute to produce standing wave melt marks in the chocolate. Look at the microwaves frequency on the back of the oven, measure the melt marks and calculate the speed of light:-) They were happy - I had about two pounds of chocolate for twenty students.
2 Automated sewing is fairly close after more than thirty years of development. It may not be adopted quickly as third world sewing not far removed from slave labor is incredibly inexpensive.
3 Slow fashion is an interesting development. It is a complex reaction to the direction of commercial fast fashion largely driven by a desire for quality over quantity, environmental concerns, a rejection of uniform-like style dictated by marketing, and clothing that fits. Over-Dressed by Elizabeth Cline is the best introduction to the subject I've seen.
An interesting weakness of commercial fashion is poor fit. There is no such thing as an average person. While we tend to find clothing that has a 'good enough' fit, studies suggest over 70% of women can't find dresses that fit to their size. (meaning there is some aspect of the clothing that would fit better in another size .. or possibly not in any size). Some adjustments are made, but mostly people put up with the poor fit rather than visit a tailor or having custom fitted clothing made. No one has cracked this yet - a glaring problem that will eventually be addressed.
There are several relevant posts in this blog - sort under fashion and skim if you like.
I'm still recovering from the flu and making food hasn't been a central part of my life. But while walking at dawn on a glorious Spring morning I thought about Mendelssohn's Overture to 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' op.20 When people think of Mendelssohn they tend to think of a certain piece of music used in weddings from a piece with a similar title. It turns out that came nearly 20 years later. Mendelssohn was 17 when he wrote the Overture.
The quality isn't great with youtube's compression, but you get the idea. If you like it and don't have a copy there are several excellent versions
Seventeen - how many people do you know who had were up to their opus 21 with several serious pieces under their belt by then?
A bit over a decade ago I spent quite a bit of time at the Oberlin Conservatory. One of the delights was dropping in on students and watching them play. One of the all time fun pieces for string players is Mendelssohn's Octet.
The performance is good here - I Musici is a quality ensemble - but the youtube quality leaves a lot to be desired. Still - some pure joy lurks.
Oh - Mendelssohn was 16 when he wrote this one.