Art offers manufacturing fresh perspectives

By Rose Jacobs

Financial Times /
June 17, 2014 10:07 pm

Amy Bernhardt does not exactly fit the mould of America’s famed 19th century industrialists: she’s an artist and designer with a painterly style; an occasional night-school student; a woman.

Yet the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) graduate is preparing to revive the once-mighty, now diminished textile industry in the northeastern US by opening a manufacturing facility in Rhode Island.

The operation, funded by a philanthropic grant, will focus on digitally printed textiles and, in particular, on printing technologies that use less energy and water than those employed by the fashion industry.

Why hasn’t the fashion industry beaten Ms Bernhardt to the punch? Because, says Rosanne Somerson, RISD’s president, the ability to step back from a process and rethink it entirely often requires an artist’s mind. “Artists and designers don’t just solve problems, they reframe questions,” she says.

Art school presidents are not alone in believing that a stronger relationship between art and manufacturing can help post-industrial economies re-embrace, and benefit from, a culture of making.

RISD receives numerous requests every year from companies hoping to team up with students to tackle a particular problem. Recent applicants include Samsung, Facebook, ESPN, a sports broadcaster, and Steinway, the piano maker.

Separately, advanced-manufacturers such as Intel are forging relationships between engineers within the company and artists outside it. And politicians and policy makers are increasingly open to the idea that art education ought to be part of a renewed focus in schools on science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem).

None of this is entirely new: the relationship between art and advanced manufacturing stretches back to Leonardo di Vinci and further.

But Pat Sweet, an engineer with Bombardier who blogs about the profession, believes the link has grown slack, with manufacturers prioritising control and efficiency over dynamism.

That is dangerous, he says, given the level of uncertainty in today’s economy. “Uncertainty is born of the expectation that things will change and the level of complexity. The more creative you are, the more likely you’ll be able to deal with change.”

Ms Somerson agrees: “There are countries and companies with expertise in manufacturing but if they don’t put innovation at their heart, they’re just responding to a need; and when the need goes away, they’re finished”.

Hence the recent blossoming of partnerships between industry and art. Intel joined up with Vice Magazine in 2009 to launch a joint media platform, The Creators Project. It was originally meant simply to showcase the work of artists using technology innovatively, says Rebecca Brown, director of media at Intel. But then the company’s research division, Intel Labs, got involved, and engineers now tap artists for ideas and advice – seeking out fibre artists, for example, when developing smart-technology T-shirts, or photographers when exploring the structures of bridges. Whether this represents a value-for-money proposition, Ms Brown will only say: “Intel is incredibly focused on results and return, and five years for Intel [the time the programme’s been running] is incredibly long.”

The conversation is happening in Europe, too. EEF, the UK’s manufacturing association, recently organised a conference in which industry got a chance to learn more about 3D printing and rapid prototyping from a team at the Royal College of Art.

But Phil Brownsword, an engineer and EEF’s southwest regional director, thinks this sort of collaboration and a more general embrace of creativity needs to happen earlier in an engineer’s career, too. He says of his education: “At no point was I evaluated on how creative I was.”

Research suggests that a lack of creativity in education could imperil innovation. A paper published in August 2013 in the Economic Development Quarterly showed that exposure to art and music as a child increased a person’s chance of owning a patent. It also suggested the correlation between early exposure to art and an interest in science or engineering is strong. Graduates of Michigan State University’s honours college who majored in Stem subjects were “more likely to have extensive arts and crafts skills than the average American”, the researchers found.

RISD has tried to foster dual interests by teaming up with nearby Brown University to let students obtain cross-disciplinary degrees. Further afield, it is leading a push called “Stem to Steam” to advocate the integration of art into kindergarten and graduate-school education around the world, and to encourage manufacturers to hire artists and designers.

Pat Sweet says smart manufacturers will not need much encouragement. “Being an artist is about moving people and when engineering is done really well it’s not just about filling specifications – it’s about making something that will change people’s lives.”