Digital fabrication technology is amazing but it is only as useful as the people using it. A CNC router will not make a good cabinet maker any more that a word processor will make a good writer or a digital synthesizer will make a good musician. A synthesizer enables a good musician to become a whole orchestra almost instantly. But a bad musician still sounds like a bad musician and a bad writer is just as annoying as ever to read. What these technologies do is allow the talented craftsman, musician, writer to be more productive than ever, and lower barriers-to-entry for the people with talent. Nevertheless, to be an artisan in the digital age, traditional skills are still required.

3D digital technology. and advances in new technology in general, permit small shops to compete with large factories in a way they could not 30 years ago. The artisan can offer clients anything that large factory manufacturers could in the past. For example, 30 years ago complex cabinet door styles could only be made custom at great expense using traditional cabinet shop tools or economically in large batches at big factories. Now a single door can be ordered economically if needed and mass production companies can be beat hands down in terms of service and speed. In many cases artisans can compete with mass producers on cost. This is because the artisan has lower transaction costs. One of the things that historically frightened small scale producers are labor costs in small scale production competing with mass production; particularly if the goods are produced in places like China. People say "They make that thing in China for $5, how can I compete". However, if the small scale producer sells locally they do not have to compete with $5 labor cost in China; they only have to compete with the $50 or $100 retail cost in their local market. Goods produced in China have a long list of transaction costs: transportation, wholesale, retail, packaging, inventory, obsolescence, corporate expenses and profit, mass market advertising and promotion. All these costs mean that the widget that is produced for $5 needs to sell for $50 or $100 to make a profit. This leaves lots of room for local artisans to make a living, as long as they keep their transaction costs down.

While the web is a good way to get a name out, showing people real physical samples is the best way to close a sale. After a visit, make sure to leave a potential customer with a few samples to play with. This way the brand sits on the kitchen table while they are trying to come to a decision. All this points to a business model of the traditional neighborhood artisan. A few hundred years ago if you wanted a pair of shoes, or a coat or a piece of furniture you went to a shoemaker, or a tailor or a cabinet maker and told them what you wanted and they made it for you. There was personal contact between the producer and the consumer, you could touch and feel the materials and say what you liked. People could take pride in their work and see the smiles on the faces of happy customers. This world was wiped out by mass production. Huge production runs meant the artisan could not compete with mass produced goods. But mass production brought its own costs. The producer and the consumer became separated by a huge faceless corporate distribution system, which pretended to care, but most suspected really didn't.

Additive manufacturing technology offers the possibility of changing all this since the customer always wants combination of style and size that is not in stock. Imagine however if a shoe store had say 50 or 100 basic shoes that you could try on for size and fit, as well as some other samples that you could use to pick the styles. With the help of an expert shoemaker you could try on the fitting samples until you found something comfortable. Then you could use the style samples to mix and match all the color and style details that fit your taste. This shoe store would not have a big warehouse of boxes in the back but some rolls of material as well as some CNC cutting and printing machines and specialized assembly tools. Depending on the complexity of the order you could go and have a coffee and then come back and pick up your order, or maybe come back the next day. This shoe store would give you exactly what you want as well as have some real cost benefits. There would be no packaging cost, low inventory costs, and much lower transportation costs since compressed rolls of material are much cheaper to transport and store than packaged finished good. Many of these cost reductions have beneficial environmental effects, such as less packaging and transport. Worker and consumer alienation would be a thing of the past. Perhaps the mall of the future could look like the high street of old, with shoemakers, tailors and furniture makers crafting what you want when you want them. The digital world provides the infrastructure and the tools, but the purchasing process would be actual and face to face. The best of both worlds maybe?