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dognose

The future of blacksmithing

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I'm aware that this hasn't been the first time this subject has been brought up on this forum, but there hasn't been too much discussion on it. The "it" I'm referring to is 3D printers. I was watching a show recently where a small business was started creating desserts using 3D, sugar based printers. The time when metal printers are commonplace is not too far off in the future. I'm wondering what that will mean for blacksmiths that are making a living from forging? I know that most of us here on this site do it because we enjoy the process, actually making something, not just entering data into a computer. Seems like the industrial era put a serious dent in the craft, but still, making and casting molds was and is expensive. One of a kind, handmade items are still sought after. Now, it appears as though we're on the brink of not being able to distinguish the difference between the two. I wonder if human made objects will continue to be held in high regard, or that will slowly disappear. I know most of us could care less and will continue to hammer away, and that some will embrace the new technology and unimaginable designs will come about. Any thoughts?

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There is a TON of BS out there regarding 3d printing.  I first saw a 3d printer about 19 years ago.  And while they have come a long way I am not too concerned about them replacing me.  

 

Most of the machines print plastic parts laying layers of plastic down and have a fairly small envelope.  They are SLOW.  They are good for prototype parts and parts that would take very expensive tooling to produce a limited number of parts.  The FDM machines which are the most common require a post finishing step if you want a nice smooth surface (less so in higher end machines)

 

The machines producing metal parts are in the $500,000and up price range and are again very slow with a small work envelope.  You have to charge a lot of money for parts to pay for a $500,000 machine.  Especially when you need to use high priced metal powders to produce your parts

 

As well 3d organic shapes take a fair bit of work to generate Cad models for and take expensive software which is also a barrier for entry and again pushes prices up. 

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To think, we thought that the postal services would be done and dusted by e-mail etc. Yet ....

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Ive thought a lot about this lately. Classic machining methods are subtractive. The new processes are additive. See where I'm going?  Forging can be both- or neither.  Often that's the best thing about it- you start with the material you need, no more, no less. in that case it's neutral. 

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I think of forging as a constant volume process, forge welding as an additive process (like arc welding).

 

3D printing is still in its infancy, but will never totally replace other manufacturing technologies. It will change the relative shares of the marketplace as it becomes better and cheaper. Airplanes have been around for a century, but we still have ships, trains, and trucks to move freight, and buses & cars to move people. Why? Cost, convenience, etc.

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Greetings Dognose,

 

I think the first job of a 3d printer that could do metal would be to make up a bunch of quality anvils so more smiths could get to work... 

 

Forge on and make beautiful things

Jim

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Don't hold your breath, the best that a half million dollar machine can do now is a key chain fob, or a paperweight. And that is NOT high carbon steel.

 

You will have to come back in a few decades for something that can make a usable anvil.

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I work with computers as my "real" job, I'm aware of the 3D printers and their capabilities, but I also take the long view... blacksmithing as it originally existed as a profession no longer exists, we're not making wheels for wagons or producing saw blades for lumberjacks.   Blacksmithing changed with the times but still exists because people still want hand crafted items, they still marvel over picking up a piece of iron and respecting the work that went into the process.  I guess if as a society we COMPLETELY lose our sense of awe then it won't matter, but I don't see that happening.   Again as example I go back to my potter friends.  I can walk into Walmart and buy a complete set of coffee mugs mass produced in China for under $10 or I can pay $25 for a single hand thrown mug.  For some of us at least, it'll be the $25 mug, always.    Computers make what we do sooooo much easier and yes they replace certain functions over time, but I just don't see it totally replacing Craftsmanship.  

 

I could, however, see it augmenting craftsmanship.  Someone posted here just this week a nifty looking knife with a handle accent done on a 3D printer.  As long as people are being real about what parts are handcrafted and what parts came from a fancy computer, I don't see an issue.  When someone starts taking machine-made parts out of the half-million dollar printer, whacking it with a hammer a few times to make it look "authentic" and then passing it off as hand-made....  well, then I see a problem.   But because of cost and other factors already noted, if that ever occurs it won't be in my lifetime.  

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I can't see 3D printers making the kind of things that Scot Forge or Shefield Forgemasters make, or even the things that our company makes.  Unless they get them (printers) a whole lot bigger, but it still does'nt give you things such as grain flow or grain refinement, otherwise the things we make could be made by casting.  And don't say that what we are doing is not blacksmithing or it doesnt involve craftsmanship.

 

Phil

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Gee seems like we had this same conversation only with respect to factories back around 1900 and the Arts & Crafts movement was born...

 

There is a market for items perceived as "handmade"  vs machine made; unfortunately it shrinks as the increase in "good" custom fab work increases.  However new technologies also open new markets----look at the rise of cad driven plasma cutters---producing things that smiths never could---and a market for smithed frames, brackets, etc, to mount and display them.

 

I would kind of like to see a good estimate on the cost of reproducing Paley's Zoo Gates by 3D printing; but I'm afraid my system would run out of zero's

 

Another point is there will be items where smithing is FAR CHEAPER than 3D printing  as you could produce the piece and be back in the house with your feet up before the cad drawing could be generated.

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I don't think that 3D printers are going to make a big difference in Blacksmithing.  I don't believe they can take the heat of being placed in the forge or being caught between an anvil and hammer.  Blacksmiths have evolved over the many centuries from making swords and armor to what we make today and tomorrow will simply bring more evolution. 

 

Now looking on the bright side of things IF 3D Printers do in fact kill off the blacksmiths it should drive down the price of anvils and shop tools so anyone trying to keep it alive can finally afford them. 

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I've seen a bit from both sides.  My family owned/operated a custom safe and vault manufacturing company for many years.  I have also owned/operated a production cnc machining company.  I think the buying public is separated into very distinct groups, each with their own needs and wants.  While the numbers change over the years (demographics, economy) and will continue to change depending on which way the wind blows, folks who want truly custom items made by hand (tools, art, structures, etc.) will always be around.  Granted in smaller numbers than years past, but still here nonetheless.  

 

I think we need to find our niche, be professionals and experts in that niche, and be happy with what we have in terms of customer base.  I remember dealing with some of the biggest stresses of my life when I felt the need to "grow" my market and wanted to accommodate everybody with a slew of new and varied products.  Didn't work worth a xxxx.  I stuck with and went back to what I knew and was good at.  Suddenly happy with life again.  Go figure.  :)

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I heard about this a year ago on NPR. it is not to far off. There are machine shops and foreign importers the make goods that blacksmith once made I do not think it will ever go away. In the last 5 years I have seen blacksmithing grow. When a company like Northern tools carry blacksmithing supplies people are looking for the items like forge, hammers, and tongs. they just do not know where to find the items they need.

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Thanks for that video clip. That's along the lines of what I was thinking. We are all using devices today that would have been unimaginable not that long ago, to say anything is too far off, or not in my lifetime is I think off the mark. They're growing human ears on the backs of mice! Self driving cars next year. While not wealthy myself, I rent a dump in a one of the most expensive cities in the world. 50% of the homes here are behind gates. Although many are "wrought iron", with scrolls and leaf work abound, not a lick of them has a hand forged piece to be found. 99 out of 100 people don't know the difference and don't care. They just want the wealthy look. I think, as Francis mentioned, that blacksmithing is growing not as a result of necessity, but as a way for people to re-connect with the past, something real. I would guess that very few of us on this site actually break even finacially. It's a labor of love.  Here is a quote from one of Yellin's contemporaries from 1918 "It is an unfortunate fact that the real nature of craftsmanship, the use of materials in a way appropriate to their nature, for ends to which they were well adapted, is little understood today, not because there is any dearth of information on the subject, but because the perfection of the mechanical means of production at our disposal has blinded us to the simplicity of the means which produced the great works of art of the past, and had led us to admire tricks of legerdemain, and illusions, by which one thing is made to look like another, and materials are loosed from there proper sphere to be discovered again in another, and foreign one. To add to his difficulty, the craftsman is constantly asked to slur over that which is deemed unimportant, or will not show, and is urged to make his work as cheap, yet as showy, as possible. Against this tendency, Samuel Yellin has steadfastly set his face". 

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I think you may be approaching the 3d printing issue from the wrong perspective. While the technology will no doubt advance to the point where metal parts will be able to be printed, as was already noted, those parts will not likely take the place of forged components for engineering applications and they likely would be too expensive to be competitive with hand forged custom decorative ironwork. I think the more likely situation is that plastic parts printed by this technology will be able to be produced on demand and then assembled in "kit" form to look like ironwork. Recall that this exact approach was something that Yelling and his contemporaries faced with cast iron. Though cast iron rarely if ever looks like forged iron work to the the trained craftsman, it is good enough for the average consumer. With 3d printing you'd be able to make a better replica of true forged work than you could from a casting. Even though cast iron did take over a large part of the wrought iron market, it never totally eliminated wrought iron. I would expect the same with 3d printing. For those who want the look of wrought iron and don't mind that what they have is a "cookie cutter" copy that could show up in the house across the street, 3d printed components will be an attractive option. For those clients who want truly custom work, they will still come to the blacksmith.

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All good responses, especially Forgemaster and JNewman. The fact is forging is the most efficient way to get what you want or need to do the job and will last or hold up better than any other technology that man has ever come up with. We are in the Steel Age!. We have gone to the moon and are going to go further because of forging technology. Forging is not a lost or dying art. It is the technology that has enabled man to do what he has done, and we have continued to improve and advance because it is the best way that gives the best result. It is a good day to be a blacksmith!

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I don't know CAD from a 3D printer, or are they related? I'm probably on a continuum leaning toward the Luddism side of the scale. To a smith, it may seem we are in an age of steel. However, I envision at times that we are also in an age of plastic or in an electronic digital age. I even think of us swimming in an "age of petroleum."

 

Blacksmithing will continue as a hand forging craft because of the challenge it presents to the worker, regardless of the market. The work is direct and it is "workmanship of risk."* There is satisfaction in bringing a project to fruition. There is mindfulness and meditation involved.

 

Whether hand forging or drop forging, I think of "the three P's." Sometimes, Process can overshadow Product, but if you put the two together, you get Project. It becomes one ball of wax...pretty exciting.

 

The craft may become moribund as it was in the U.S. in the 1960's, but there can be revivals, as we saw beginning in 1970.

 

* "The Nature and Art of Workmanship" by David Pye

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I cannot post this as one post so I split it up

 

The are machines on the market that will print in high carbon and alloy steel and there are machines that are large enough to print small anvils on the market.  But the zeros on the end of the price of machines and parts start adding up quickly.

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I like Franks's response. Mostly because he sort of agrees with me. I am not arguing the death of blacksmithing, simply bringing up a "new" technology and what that technology will mean in relationship to the craft. I still think several responses seem short sided. Just because they (printers) can't do something today, or cheaply or efficiently as a smith can, doesn't mean in 20 years that they won't. Or that the alloy mixture they extrude will not be 10x stronger than mild steel. Police wear kevlar vests, not metal. Carbon fibre has replaced metal and wood in many applications where strength and weight are critical. Like Frank said, I think the craft will continue to survive regardless, but for different reasons than it does today or in the past. I think this will be my last response to this thread as many continue to bring up current day arguments. The title of the post was "The future of blacksmithing". 

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So lets say 24hrs at $100/hr (pretty cheap for a half million dollar machine, probably a million dollar machine to produce a 12lb anvil) $2400

120lb of metal powder at lets say $3/lb (I bet it is much higher) $360

Heat treatment $150 (minimum charge at a Ht facility with large enough facilities to HT an anvil)

So you now have a 120lb anvil for $2910 before any retail markup.  or $24/lb

 

 

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So lets say 24hrs at $100/hr (pretty cheap for a half million dollar machine, probably a million dollar machine to produce a 12lb anvil) $2400

120lb of metal powder at lets say $3/lb (I bet it is much higher) $360

Heat treatment $150 (minimum charge at a Ht facility with large enough facilities to HT an anvil)

So you now have a 120lb anvil for $2910 before any retail markup.  or $24/lb

 

 

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blacksmithing as it originally existed as a profession no longer exists, we're not making wheels for wagons or producing saw blades for lumberjacks...

Perhaps not in North America or Western Europe. But in many other places in this world, the local village blacksmith is still the go-to guy for the farmers and such to get their working tools.

The Star Trek view of the world, tell the computer what you want and a quality part pops effortlessly out of a machine, is still a long, long way off. I don't see current 3D printers being any kind of a threat to smithing whatsoever.

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Blacksmithing is now an art form and a hobby. Just as printing technology hasn't eliminated oil and canvas painting, nothing will eliminate blacksmithing.

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Factory built homes, modular wall systems, computer aided design, all exist on the residential home market.  Sears and Roebuck sold "kit homes" out of a newfangled mail order catalog.  Yet the vast majority of homes going up in the U.S. are still stick framed like they were 30 some years ago.

 

Back in college I observed a presentation about the incredible advances in computer aided design for residential homes.  Much is said about Building Information Management (BIM).  True it exists, but it's not anywhere near common.

 

 I've encountered truly 3D construction designs only twice in the last ten years.  In contrast, nearly all building plans are digital now.  Some advances are useful, while the others only seem useful.

 

I think it's less about the investment cost of these systems, or resistance to change.  The reason this stuff hasn't overtaken the old practices is that it's not saving enough money or delivering a better value.  Lots of yammering is done about why such and such  efficient thing isn't being done as though everyone isn't willing to "see the light".

 

The fact is, even when it's a high dollar layout for efficiency or quality - people will pay.  High efficiency appliances, furnaces, air conditioners, water heaters, lights, and so on sell very well because people know they'll see a return on their investment. It's common also for folks to spend extra on something of quality so they'll still be happy with it 20 years down the line.

 

I agree with Frank about Blacksmithing's meaning to me.  I think making a living as a blacksmith will depend upon offering a better value to the customer than can be had elsewhere.  For some, that might mean buying a 3D printer, for others - that might mean developing an artist's touch that resonates with their audience.

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3D or "additive" or rapid prototype is very promising tech and has come a long way. Like several have said it is currently too expensive, limited in size, limited in material powders, can't make parts of multiple materials, doesn't have fine surface finish, and is slow. But I still think it is the future of manufacturing. And I will keep making stuff in my garage and working on my skills.

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