October 11, 2011

Elegance and the Machine

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Since his death last week, Apple president Steve Jobs is being eulogized for his excellence in two fields: technology and style. While Jobs was a renowned tech entrepreneur, his secret weapon was always his intense interest in design and aesthetics. His legacy reminds me of one of my favorite words, an engineering term that refers to the solution that is the most simple, the most effective, and solves multiple problems at once. The word is “elegance.”

Jobs’ understanding of this crucial symbiosis between internal and external elegance is a gospel for the clothing production industry. Although the fashion industry sees itself as an avant-garde cultural institution, it cannot be until it advances in step with technology. It wasn’t always so, of course, seeing as the sewing machine was one of the great achievements and motors of the industrial revolution. The problem wasn’t that technology didn’t keep up with fashion but it was, in fact, fashion that fell behind.

As for the technology, by the late 1800s automated sewing machines were common and, by the early 1900s, mass-production by electrically powered machines was a profitable industry. But it is as though that achievement took so much ingenuity that everyone was tired and couldn’t think of anything new for over 100 years. Here we are in 2011, with similar clothing production systems to those of 1911, with the majority of work being done by human operators.

One reason these systems have persisted has been available labor in various phases of international development. The “workability” of the current paradigm of constantly searching for cheaper hand-labor has allowed it to persist. And there are even advocates for this system, arguing that automation of sewing processes would put poor people out of work. The same argument was made in 1830 by the French tailors who burned down Barthelemy Thimonnier’s factory, thinking he would make them irrelevant by his invention of an iteration of the sewing machine. But as we can see, there is room in today’s market for the tailor, and more importantly a plethora of fashion jobs that never existed before the sewing machine. Likewise, there will well be a whole new sector created around fashion technologies once the field develops further and once tailors, too, are obsolete.

There are several organizations that are brainstorming and researching what this new field will be. Among them is the European organization comprised of university and industry researchers called the “LEAPFROG initiative,” which is envisioning a new supply chain that minimizes fabric waste and human labor while harnessing 3-D animation software for designing and robotic technologies for production. Critics of the initiative argue that the paradigm makes some leaps of the imagination to explain processes that technology has yet to truly accomplish, such as a suction-based surface (like a gecko’s feet) for fabric cutting or a robot that will sew the garment in 3-D on a mannequin.

I think these critics are missing the point, which is the importance of this brainstorming. We are in that critical moment, like the stirring before every revolution, when people decide that something is not working well and they envision a better future, regardless of whether they know the path to get there.

This is the point of intervention where engineering elegance is called upon. Maybe inspiration can be taken from processes of airplane manufacture that replicate human movements for polishing and assembly or taken from biomimicry like the suction cup example, or taken from other fields of production that don’t normally exchange technologies with fashion production.

The reason I specify elegance and not just ingenuity is because clothing production relies on simplification of systems and minimization of time, labor and materials. As French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry described it, “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”  The concept “less is more” is as much a credo of aesthetes as systems engineers in this sense.

But these elegant mechanical solutions will not apparate like a Harry Potter spell.  They will need to be preceded by the designers, researchers, and fashion executives who are envisioning this new paradigm, financing it, and seeking elegance with elegance.

Original Author: Amelia Brown