Compare these two views of the future:

In America, we can focus on craft. That’s where the money is, and that’s where the hope lies for American manufacturing. -NPR Planet Money, February 2012


An American firm, 3D Systems, used one of its 3D printers to print a hammer for your correspondent, complete with a natty wood-effect handle and a metallised head. This is what manufacturing will be like in the future. -The Economist, April 2012

Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks these two visions for making stuff are at odds. On Friday, British designer Dominic Wilcox faced off against a 3D printer in a race of man against machine.

It all started with a tweet by Wilcox saying that he wanted to race a rapid prototyping machine, which got the attention of the curator of Milan design week, who set the whole thing up. As Wilcox described on his blog, the challenge was to build a model of Duomo, a cathedral in Milan:

So the plan is simple, I will sit at a table making a model of the Duomo in clay and a 3D Printer will sit opposite me working away on making it’s own Duomo. A large clock will countdown for 1.5 hours.

The 3D printer is a Thing-o-matic MakerBot and will be controlled

Curious how it turned out? Here’s a 2-minute video:

Wilcox, a modern day John Henry, was pronounced the winner, though not for any particularly obvious reason. The 3D model was impressive.

Perhaps most interesting of all was the fact that the crowd so actively cheered for Wilcox. That’s not surprising, but in a sense they’re rooting against progress. If a machine can accomplish that task more efficiently, that means higher productivity and therefore greater prosperity. Rooting against that is kind of odd when you think about it. But we remain committed to the “human touch” nonetheless.

I was struck by Wilcox’s closing line: “the future is in humans.” I wouldn’t bet on it.