"We want to do things you could never do with mass production," Andy McDonald tells me as we sit in the compact premises of the Centre for Advanced Textiles. From here, just five staff are delivering an on-demand textile printing service, retailing a range of classic designs on fabric, and exploring the boundaries of modern fabrication through several collaborative research projects.
One of the latter that Andy enthuses about is a project involving a "code-generated kimono". For this Andy wrote a script that allows the user to arrange a pattern on a virtual diagram of a kimono, chossing exactly where to place elements of the design. The script then takes these instructions and translates them into patterns for printing on CAT's digital printers, automatically calculating where seamlines should fall and making the patterm continue across them continuously (see bottom image).
More recently, CAT is working with local design heroes Timorous Beasties, a small enterprise specialising in unique wallcoverings and surfaces for home furnishing. JR cites the Beasties as just the size of business that CAT would like to target and who can benefit the most from digital on-demand processes. The business employs 12 people, screenprinting all their own surfaces by hand in batches, probably the most recognisable design being their very modern Glaswegian take on the 18th century 'toile' style. In their forthcoming collaboration, CAT are exploring new ways for customers to commission designs, using computerised interfaces to give the customer an experience which can then be captured uniquely in the product they take home. It is this factor of 'experience' that CAT see as the crucial value in digital manufacturing.
"Timorous Beasties' strength is in the aesthetic. We can take that digital, building interactions between the customer and, say, the 'toile' scene." In facilitating the customer in creating their own unique pattern, say as a character in their own pastoral scene, JR and Andy hope to create high value products that the customer has an experiencial, traceable link with and therefore will never want to dispose of.
The results of one experiment in customisation hang in CAT's offices
For Andy however, his work isn't about customisation:
"Mass customisation has sidetracked the debate for 10 yrs or so - multi-production builds in flexibility from the core."
Similarly to Ponoko, Andy's vision is of completely decentralised manufacturing, fully exploiting the reduction in design, storage and transport overheads that the digital age allows. He sees the future for CAT as the first of many platforms for small businesses, that would then be able to offer their own web based fabrication experiences to customers. Accordingly, fabrication would become similarly localised and distributed, a system he tentatively calls 'cloud manufacture'.
It's an exciting discussion that brings us round to the rather more traditional example of tartan weavers - local purveyors of technical skills for whose customers negotitation and customisation were easy. And there are few things longer lasting and more globally pervasive than a good kilt!